Negotiation and influence expert Tom Harber explains ‘Perceptual Contrast’

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Negotiation and influence expert Tom Harber explains ‘Perceptual Contrast’

April 13
02:47 2023
Just one tool of many delivered on the new definitive online skills course: Negotiation & Influence Essentials

In 1974 Philippe Petit walked a high-wire, unassisted and without a safety net, strung between the tops of the World Trade Centre’s twin towers. Petit and his team’s preparations spanned six years and included constructing a scale model, access and entry planning, weather effects and how to rig a cable across the span. Petit even rented a helicopter to take aerial photographs and was reported to have said that having had the opportunity to see things from the vantage point of the helicopter helped, as it had made the actual wire seem not as high. Why? Perceptual contrast.

We, as humans, perceive and experience things as enhanced or diminished, depending on our prior exposure to comparative stimuli. Put simply, we are constantly comparing things, seeing them as better or worse, more or less expensive, easier or more difficult, depending on what has come before. If we place one hand in cold water, one hand in hot, then immediately place both hands in room-temperature water, the room-temperature water will actually feel different to each hand. Lift something heavy and then lift something lighter, the lighter object will feel far lighter than it ordinarily would. We are even inclined to rate someone as less attractive if we have just been in the company of someone far more so.

If they are clever, marketers, salespeople and other influence professionals use this principle to exploit our psychological susceptibility. The retail clothier sells us the accessory (the tie, the matching earrings) after we’ve committed to purchasing the more expensive item (the suit, the necklace), the accessory appearing far cheaper in comparison. The car salesman pitches us the after-market options (the metallic paint, the satellite navigation) after already having closed us on the big ticketed car.

In other negotiations it is common for one side to make an extreme offer or demand before eventually making one or more ‘concessions’, the new position now appearing more palatable than it otherwise would. The principle also underlies why the commonly used difficult tactic – good guy bad guy – often works as a persuasive tool. Further, negotiators who focus on what they hope to achieve are more likely to obtain superior outcomes to those who focus on what they hope to avoid. Finally, taking the time to do a mock run through of an upcoming negotiation, with someone standing being intentionally difficult, can help prepare for the interaction, particularly in terms of minimizing surprise etc.

So in your next negotiation, consider the principle of perceptual contrast, consider what has come before and whether you are making decisions based on cogent rational grounds, or being swayed by something else entirely. For we are comparison machines and the contrast principle is a powerful programmer.

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