The Dangers of Comparison Shopping

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Canon or Nikon? Apple or PC? This or that? Does it really make that much difference? No, not as much as we predict.

Making comparisons between goods and services is supposed to get us a better deal but it doesn’t always work that way. That’s because of the weird way our brains make mountains out of molehills.

The potato chip study

Consider a study by Morewedge et al. (2010). Participants were asked to predict how much they would enjoy a potato chip. Half the participants were in a room that also happened to contain other superior snacks like a luxurious chocolate bar; others were in a room with inferior snacks, like sardines and spam.

People in the room with the superior snacks thought they’d enjoy the chip less than those in the room with the inferior snack. They were wrong. In fact they liked the snacks exactly the same, no matter the surrounding snacks.

Here’s the moral: when you enjoy whatever you choose, you’re mostly not comparing it with other options: you enjoy it for what it is. Comparisons mess with your mind.

The tyranny of small differences

When we go to buy a car, a house or a snack we tend to make a big deal out of the differences between similar products. We notice that this car is faster, or this house is slightly bigger, or this chocolate bar is bigger. In reality the differences in our enjoyment are much smaller than we imagine; maybe no more than a hill of beans.

If you’re the kind of person that really sweats over their comparison shopping, then take note. This research suggests: don’t bother, let it go, it won’t matter. Sure, get the lowest price for the same goods or service, but don’t go crazy choosing between models or features, it really won’t make that much difference.

The danger is that the tyranny of relatively small differences will force you to spend more money than you want or can afford. Then you end up having to pay for something that makes you no happier than a cheaper option. Indeed, when you consider the extra effort required to pay for expensive things like houses and cars, it may even make you less happy in the long-run.

So, be happier, do what psychologists call ‘satisficing’ (a combination of satisfy and suffice): get something that does the job but don’t torture yourself, it’s not worth it.

Image credit: Yampee Yankee

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Published: 27 October 2011

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