Presenter’s paradox: Why “a little more” is TMI

Woman shopping

You sell yourself and your talents all the time, but are you making the impression you think you are? More likely you’re offering TMGI – too much good information. Here’s why.

A relatively new area of consumer psychology, “impression formation”, explores how the human mind processes information to form an opinion of someone or something (like your product line) upon first introduction. Research findings show that packing a presentation or promotion with lots of favorable benefits and then adding one less favorable (but still admirable trait or benefit) may actually cheapen the entire impression. This brain dynamic is called “Presenter’s Paradox” because your audience will subconsciously average incoming information.

Consider this example cited by researchers: an airline had a mechanical problem which significantly delayed a flight’s takeoff schedule. Passengers were impressed when compensated with a coupon for a good discount on a future flight and a nice meal. Then the airline added to that a phone card worth a quarter, which (at that time) would buy 5 minutes airtime, to allow the passengers to notify family or friends. The quarter add-on devalued the entire offering in the minds of the passengers, who then described the airline as “cheap”.

We all routinely provide TMGI when hoping to make a positive impression and too often, it backfires. During a job interview, you might explain that you have mastered computer programs A, B and C. Then, to push yourself ahead of other candidates who may lack any experience with the more sophisticated industry Software D, you add that you have often used it, though you aren’t claiming to be a master at it. Oops. That last comment cost you points with your reviewers.

To mathematically explain, using a scale of 10, you earned 30 points for mastering three programs, and a score of 7 for the program semi-mastered, due to its complexity. You reason that you’ve earned an summary advantage with a score of 37, since the best your competitors could earn, lacking Software D experience, would be a 30. In fact, the scores were averaged, and 37/4 = 9.25. Lessor qualified candidates might actually be awarded a higher mental score of 10 for mastering only the three programs.

You don’t mentally assign scores or values to information? Your subconscious brain certainly does, and research conclusively proves that it then leaves you with a conscious “impression” based on averages, not summations.

Consider these outcomes, presented by psychologists Kimberlee Weaver, Stephen Garcia, and Norbert Schwarz, based on several experiments on presenter’s paradox:

  • Participants were offered two iPod Touch package options: one included an iPod, cover, and one free song download while the other included only the iPod and cover. One group was willing to pay an average of $177 for the package with the song, while another thought $242 was a good value for the one without the download. Adding a low-value free song download actually devalued the package’s impression.
  • Likewise, a university scholarship of $1,750 was perceived as much more generous by a group of college students than a second group rated a scholarship of $1,750 plus an additional $15 use toward textbooks.
  • Participants viewed one of two advertisements for the same hotel. One showed a five-star pool rating and a three-star restaurant review. The other mentioned only the five-star pool. The ad mentioning only the pool inspired participants to imagine an average cost of $108.80 per night, compared to a price-point of $92.45 per night offered by a second group considering both pool and restaurant.
  • The parallel is also true – a not-so-bad option waters down the degree of terribleness attributed to a punishment. Government employees were recruited to recommend one of two punishments to the governor for littering: a $750 fine or a $750 fine plus two hours of community service. 86% felt that the fine plus community service would be the best deterrent. However, college students rated the $750 with the two hours of community service as a significantly less severe punishment than the fine alone. (Two separate groups gave ratings to one or the other and then the ratings were compared.) Two hours of community service didn’t seem so bad, which made the sentence seem lighter as an averaged impression.

For every experiment, a separate “marketer” participant group was asked to select the best of both package options to put before consumers. In every case, they were wrong. What we learn about how our minds work, and how we might apply that knowledge today in both our personal and professional lives, can help us make a more favorable impression tomorrow.

So what’s your average in any given situation, and when are you offering TMGI?

About Jody Glynn Patrick

Jody is President of Glynn Patrick & Associates, which provides management consulting, executive coaching and strategic planning services. She is Publisher Emeritus of In Business magazine, which she published for 17 years. Selected as the “U.S. Business Journalist of the Year” in 2007 in Washington, DC, by the U.S. Small Business Administration, Jody has been a business reporter, editor, radio talk show host , and has won other state and national journalism awards. At the same time, she has helped corporate clients grow their businesses -- the basis for her practical coaching advice here. She also was the 2005 Athena Award recipient for her leadership role in mentoring other professional women. Jody will be talking with you weekly on TDS’ blog to share her insights and tips from the C-Suite perspective. Follow on G+.

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