3.24 Contrast Effect: Definition & Example

Jan 23, 2020 | ch3 Sensation & Perception, Courses, Intro to Psychology

In this lesson, you will learn the definition of the contrast effect and be given examples to further your understanding. Following the lesson will be a brief quiz.

What Is the Contrast Effect?

You are shopping for a car and the salesman shows you an expensive model that has all of the bells and whistles. You love it, but wonder why he is showing you something way above your budget. He then leads you to a similar car that is ‘on sale’ and cheaper than the first but still a little over your budget. But compared to first car, it’s a great deal, and you feel you must buy it before someone else does!

You have just fallen victim to one of the most common sales techniques – the contrast effect. The contrast effect is a magnification or diminishment of perception as a result of previous exposure to something of lesser or greater quality, but of the same base characteristics. In the example above, the car salesman showed you a very expensive car first so that the one he showed you next (the one he actually was trying to sell you) seemed inexpensive compared to the first.

Positive and Negative Contrast Effects

There are two types of contrast effects: positive and negative. A ‘positive contrast effect’ would occur if something was perceived as better than it actually is because it was compared to something worse. An example of this would be a high school English teacher grading final papers. She grades a horrible paper with multiple fragments and run-on sentences. When the next paper does not contain any of these grammatical mistakes, she rates it of higher quality than other paper (even though it may have its own shortcomings) because it looks great in comparison to the preceding paper.

A ‘negative contrast effect’ would be when something was perceived as worse than it actually is because it was compared to something better. An example of this would be a man who goes on two blind dates, one on Friday night and the other on Saturday night. The woman on Friday night is drop-dead gorgeous. The woman on Saturday night is very pretty, but compared to the model from the night before, she doesn’t seem to be anything special. The woman on Saturday night is unfortunately judged as less beautiful because she is being compared to the first woman.

Faulty Perception

Let’s look at another example of the contrast effect.

Perception of Light versus Dark

Which center gray box is lighter?

In this image we see three large squares side by side. The two on each side are gray and the one in the middle is black. Now we see three smaller gray squares appear inside each of these larger squares. Which one of the smaller squares is the lightest? The one in the black square, right? It certainly seems lighter, but actually all three small squares are the exact same shade of gray. The one in the center only appears lighter because of the optical illusion created by the contrast effect!

Perception of Height

President Barack Obama talks with LeBron James as First Lady Michelle Obama hugs Deron Williams during their greet with members of the U.S. Men’s Olympic basketball team at halftime of the game against Brazil at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., July 16, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

And in this image, despite the fact that Barack Obama looks short compared to LeBron James, he is actually still 6 foot 1 inches. On average, that’s fairly tall, but compared to a superstar basketball player, President Obama seems tinier.

Preventing the Contrast Effect

The contrast effect can hinder accurate impressions, for example in interviewing candidates for a job or participating in a taste test. The interviewer or taste tester could have a biased opinion about one due to exposure to a previous one. If an interviewer sees an excellent candidate and then one that is not as great, the second one may be seen as worse than he actually is. If a sweet barbecue sauce is tasted after a sour one, it may be rated as much sweeter than it actually is. How can we prevent these effects from occurring?

In taste tests, crackers or other palate cleansers can be used between tastings so that the taste of one does not affect the taste of the other. And an interviewer can schedule candidates to come in on different days instead of back-to-back to lessen possible contrast effects.

Lesson Summary

The contrast effect is a magnification or diminishment of perception as a result of previous exposure to something of lesser or greater quality, but of the same base characteristics. For example, if a car salesman showed you a top-of-the-line car that was way out of your price range, and then showed you one that was more practical, but still out of your budget. However, compared to the first car it seemed like a great deal and you buy it. That was the salesman’s plan all along.

There are two types of contrast effects. A ‘positive contrast effect’ would occur if something was perceived as better than it actually is because it was compared to something worse. For instance, when a teacher is grading an essay that is horribly written, she is more likely to give the next one high marks, even if it is not that great.

A ‘negative contrast effect’ would be when something was perceived as worse than it actually is because it was compared to something better. For example, a man who dates a drop-dead gorgeous woman on Friday night will think the very pretty girl on Saturday night is not that special.

As we have seen the contrast effect can easily hinder accurate impressions.

4.1 States of Consciousness, Self-Awareness & the Unconscious Mind
3.23 Sensory Cortex: Definition & Function