Irrelevant Third Options in Presidential Campaigns
Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 4, 2007
In 1992, Itamar Simonson and Amos Tversky demonstrated the effect of “irrelevant third options” in a simple experiment in which subjects were asked to select a microwave oven based on various product features and prices. Most of the subjects given a choice only between a low-priced Emerson and a medium-priced Panasonic preferred the Emerson model. When a high-priced Panasonic model was added to the selection, however, most of the subjects selected the medium-priced Panasonic, thus dramatically increasing Panasonic’s share of the experimental market. It is folk wisdom in the restaurant industry that every dessert menu should have at least one excessively indulgent item to make the others appear comparatively less indulgent. Similarly gas stations, it seems, are likely encouraging consumers to purchase mid-grade gasoline by including high-grade option.
More recently, Situationist contributor Paul Slovic has shown how this phenomenon, among many others, reflects what he calls the “affect heuristic” or the “risk as feelings” approach to risk perception. (For an overview of that research, click here.)
It is now well understood that adding options can alter behavior, even when the options are not chosen. Seemingly irrelevant options can actually be quite relevant because they change the situation and alter affective responses to existing options.
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The same goes for front-runners John McCain and Rudy Giuliani in the race for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. They ought to be drawing attention to Mitt Romney, or to “Law and Order” star Fred Thompson, who could be running third in the race if he declared.
Front-runners are usually focused on racing each other. They often do not realize that when people cannot decide between two leading candidates — and it doesn’t matter whether we are talking about politicians or consumer appliances — our decision can be subtly swayed by whoever is in third place.
Psychologists call this the decoy effect: In a perfectly rational world, third candidates should only siphon votes away from one or both of the leading contenders. Under no circumstances should they cause the vote share of either front-runner to increase. In the actual world, however, third candidates regularly have the unintended effect of making one of the front-runners look better than before in the minds of undecided voters.
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Let’s say you are a centrist Democratic voter who cannot decide between Clinton and Obama because you want a candidate who is strong on national security but also someone fresh. You like Clinton on one measure and Obama on the other. Enter Edwards, whom you see as more dovish than Obama but part of the same establishment as Clinton. Obama looks better than Edwards on both counts, whereas Clinton beats Edwards on only the national security issue.
On the other hand, let’s say you care about experience but are wary of policies such as universal health care. You like Clinton’s experience but are worried about her track record on health care. Enter Edwards, whom you perceive to be as untested as Obama but even more likely to pursue a traditionally liberal agenda. Clinton now looks better than Edwards on both counts.
What this means is that Obama and Clinton stand to gain by drawing attention to those qualities of Edwards’s that make each front-runner look much better than the other. Clever front-runners, in other words, can turn third candidates into their wingmen.
“Many people lavished hate on Ralph Nader for presumably taking votes away from the Democratic front-runner in the 2000 presidential election,” said Scott Highhouse, who has studied the decoy effect at Bowling Green State University. “Research on the decoy effect suggests that Nader’s presence, rather than taking votes away, probably increased the share of votes for the candidate he most resembled.”
Suzanne Fogel, head of the marketing department at DePaul University, conducted a study of the 1992 presidential election, where Ross Perot provided the psychologist with a third candidate and a national laboratory. She and colleagues Yigang Pan and Robert Pitts found that, contrary to the conventional wisdom about which candidate Perot would hurt, undecided voters who focused on different qualities of Perot tended to gravitate toward George H.W. Bush or Bill Clinton.
“People are not very thorough information processors,” she said. “People try to distill the essence from things, and if someone calls attention to one attribute or another, you make your choice based on that attribute because it is in the foreground of your attention.”
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