The Presenter’s Paradox: Why Less Really Is More

My senior year in high school, I got a chance to see first-hand the problem of an overabundance of information. That year, two of my friends — one of whom was the valedictorian of our graduating class — both applied to Princeton.

The valedictorian had a perfect GPA, had played one season of Junior Varsity soccer, had worked on one school play as a junior, had joined the debate team and the mock trial team senior year, and generally had a number of short-term after school activities that he had dabbled in throughout high school.

His best friend, on the other hand, seemed to have a much less impressive application. In fact, he applied to Princeton almost as a lark. While he was no slouch academically, he had nowhere near the grades of the valedictorian — but he was a three-sport varsity letterman who had played all three sports for his entire high school career.

On paper, it would seem as though the valedictorian would be the much better candidate. In addition to his perfect grades and clear intelligence, he was "well-rounded" in terms of his interests (which was exactly why he had adopted the policy of dabbling).

But, much to all of our surprise, Princeton flat-out rejected the valedictorian and accepted his athletic friend with the worse grades (and SAT scores).

What my friends encountered here was something that has only recently been studied — a phenomenon known as the presenter's paradox. This is a strange quirk of our brains that means we undervalue valuable items if they are paired with less valuable ones.

Basically, when my friend the valedictorian added a number of "little" activities to his transcript, it made his entire application seem like less of a good deal, whereas his friend's two "big" positive attributes — fairly good grades and a dedication to sports — seemed much more solid to Princeton.

The presenter's paradox is something we encounter on a daily basis — both as presenters and evaluators. Here's what you need to know in order to minimize the effect of the paradox. (See also: 6 Ways Money Really Can Buy Happiness)

Too Much Information Dilutes

Kimberlee Weaver and her co-authors on the study which defined the presenter's paradox found that presenters and evaluators come at information from different cognitive angles. Presenters assume that adding more to any particular offer — whether it's a college application or a purchase that comes with a free gift — will add to the value. That assumption seems to make a great deal of sense. If X is good, then X+Y (or even X+Y+Z) must be better.

Unfortunately for everyone from college hopefuls to marketing professionals, evaluators do not look at information that way. Instead, when we look at the value of a package, we average the values of the various components together.

This is why you could be pleased to receive a $35 travel voucher from an airline after you were forced to sit on the tarmac for a two-hour delay and be annoyed to receive the same voucher plus a 25-cent phone card for the same delay. The stingy phone card, which will hardly provide you with enough call time to make other arrangements with your destination, detracts from the generosity of the travel voucher.

The Gift Conundrum

One of the many ways you'll see the presenter's paradox in action is when you are shopping for gifts. While you might want to maximize the gifts your money can buy by pairing a big gift with a smaller one, the study shows that this can backfire. According to a Science Daily article, we can dilute the impact of our generosity by adding stocking stuffer gifts to our big presents:

Suppose you're trying to impress a loved one with a generous gift this holiday season... One option is to buy them a luxury cashmere sweater. A second option is to add in a $10 gift card.

If their budget allows, most gift givers would choose the second option, as it comprises two gifts — one big, one small... Ironically, however, the gift recipient is likely to perceive the cashmere sweater alone as more generous than the combination of the same sweater and gift card.

This comes as welcome news to anyone who has ever agonized over gift giving. Not only can you get away with simply buying one gift, your recipient will appreciate it more than they would if there were add-ons.

Free Gift With Purchase

What is possibly the strangest aspect of the presenter's paradox has to do with how we perceive the inclusion of a "free gift with purchase." If that "free" gift seems to be something of lower value than the original purchase — or is something that you wouldn't otherwise be interested in — the company offering it is actually shooting itself in the foot (and spending a great deal of money to do so).

As Christopher Bonanos of Businessweek put it, "A few items of low value — or, to be precise, perceived low value — are not lagniappes [gifts] but losers, and drag down everyone's opinion of the good stuff."

This is why Weaver and her team found that people were more likely to spend more on an iPod sold by itself than they were on an iPod that came with a single free music download. The free song was considered such a throwaway that it dragged down the perceived value of the entire package — even among evaluators who were familiar with iPods and their quality.

While marketers clearly need to be on the lookout for devaluing their products by adding on gifts that seem stingy or low value, knowing about the presenter's paradox can help us as shoppers to make more intelligent and rational decisions. Rather than go by your gut feeling about what product or bundle is the best value, it pays to sit down with a calculator and actually do some addition — just like the presenters did when they decided what to sell you. You'll come to the conclusion that they thought you would — that adding a few low-value items to a big-ticket item makes economic sense.

When You Are the Presenter

The difference between what a presenter intends and an evaluator perceives is so counter-intuitive that it took until Weaver's study to even have a name. So we can be forgiven for all the presentations we've overloaded, resumes we've stuffed, and gifts we've overspent on.

However, knowing about this difference can help in many various aspects of our lives. For instance, Christopher Peterson of Psychology Today writes about how his sympathy for his students' poor performance wanes the more explanations they give:

As a college teacher, the holiday season for me always coincides with the end of the fall semester, when I talk to students who did not do as well as they wished in classes I teach. They usually offer explanations, which I take seriously, but the more explanations a student offers, the more likely I am to hear them as mere excuses. One good explanation is enough and certainly better than a good one followed by two or three not-so-good ones!

Our tendency to want to tell all when we are feeling defensive — whether it's because of a poor grade or poor decision — makes us less sympathetic in our evaluator's eyes. It's better to provide a short and sweet explanation and leave it at that.

And, if you are presenting positive information, remember the importance of less is more there, as well. Make sure that everything you are offering is equally strong, since the (perceived) weaker information will devalue your presentation — as my friend in high school so painfully discovered.

Tagged: Life Hacks
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Guest's picture

Quality is better than quantity is something that should never be overlooked!

Guest's picture

This theory is so interesting- I never internalized it like that. I still feel like many people don't subscribe to this mode of thought though. I have excellent grades, but I have just never felt the urge to go join groups and clubs so I can 'look good'. Truth is, this has held me back when looking for jobs. Also, I can't believe that free gift with purchase reference! I appreciate anything that is free and free stuff definitely influences my decision, even if it's just a pen. (We need to write right)

Guest's picture

Great article!
Kimberly weaver's study link is broken. Could you please fix?

Amy Lu's picture
Amy Lu

Hi Guest! The link should work now. =)

Max Wong's picture

I make jam. I have discovered that people will pay more per ounce for a smaller jar and that friends seem to see getting two 4 ounce jars of jam as a fancier gift than getting two 8 ounce jars of jam.

I think portion size has gotten so crazy in the US, that if you sell small sizes of something, that signifies status and quality.

Guest's picture
John B

Keep it simple. Keep it short. Keep it elegant.

Throwing on the extra crap does cheapen the original. Learn when to say enough!