In my last post, I covered Reciprocity, the first “principle of persuasion” examined by Dr. Cialdini in his book Influence. In this post, I will discuss the contrast principle, another essential point covered by Cialdini.

The contrast principle says that perception is relative. If you experience two similar things in succession, your perception of the second is influenced by the first. If there are two items and the second item is substantially different from the first, you will tend to see it as even more different than it actually is.  If you put your hand in cold water, and then in normal water, it will seem much hotter than it actually is. Likewise, if you put your hand in hot water, and then in normal water, it will seem much colder than it actually is.

See this example:

“At my local Costco, the case always contains a handful of watches in the $5,000 – $10,000 price range. These watches are placed at the side of the display case near the main aisle, so they’re likely the first watches most consumers see as they approach the case. Between their location and appearance, you can’t help but look at the $5,000, $6,000+ watches. The $950 Tag Heuer you see two steps away looks surprisingly inexpensive. “I can afford that,” I always hear myself thinking. And the $89 sports watch? Why not pick one up for weekend hikes and working out — they’re almost giving them away.”

A smart marketer starts with a ludicrous proposal and then brings down the price to make it seem reasonable in comparison. Stores do this all the time. A salesperson at a clothing store, for example, might first show you expensive clothing before he shows you cheap clothing.

Politicians do the same with policy proposals. A proposal of just a 30% tax, without any context, is ludicrous because it is automatically compared to a 0% increase. But in the context of calls for tax raises of 90%, a tax raise of 30% seems manageable and even reasonable. As campaigners, Donald Trump was smart to begin with aggressive and extreme first demands for a border wall, and Bernie Sanders was smart to begin with aggressive and extreme first demands for tax rates exceeding 50%. As Scott Adams wrote, “A good negotiator starts with an aggressive first demand so there is plenty of room to negotiate toward the middle.” Haggling and bargaining and economic maneuvering are all done through the contrast principle.

Applied to debate, the contrast principle means that any idea appears more attractive in comparison to a more absurd one.

For example:

-Eliminating all tariffs on just Chinese imports is more reasonable once you consider that Hong Kong has 0% tariff rate on all countries.

-A one-size-fits-all policy is extreme…when all other options are flexible.

-If you can demonstrate that the idea you propose is not as extreme as the negative trend that surrounds it, then that idea is attractive.

-If you can demonstrate that the idea you propose supersedes the positive trend that surrounds it, then that idea is attractive.

You’re creative enough to apply the principle to whatever case/idea/policy/product you are debating/discussing/proposing/marketing. Bottom line is: be reasonable and craft common ground.

I will admit, perception is dangerous and must be used with caution: no immoral action is justified just because “everybody’s doing it.” However, if used wisely, the contrast principle can be an effective tool in the rhetorician’s belt.