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How to get what you want using decoys and deliberations

Influencing people to choose what you want them to, and how deliberation style alters group decisions

By Madan Pillutla and Anna Johnston . 23 January 2017

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Comparisons help define the worth of products, services and even people. It’s why companies such as TripAdvisor, Amazon and Match.com are successful. Hotels are booked, items are purchased and people find dates based on how they look next to their less appealing counterparts. 


But sometimes people find it difficult to make comparisons among alternatives because they differ on too many dimensions. “People often refer to this as comparing apples with oranges,” says Madan Pillutla, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School. “When you’re in that situation, and want people to pick the apple, throw a rotten apple into the mix.”


Behavioural economist Dan Ariely demonstrated how to do this when he described how Economist readers were offered a strange set of subscription choices: access to web content for $59, the print edition for $125, or a combined print-and-web subscription for $125, the same as print-only. He questioned why such a bizarre set of options existed. Surely anyone buying a print-only subscription would be out of their mind? 


This was proved right: 84% of subscribers chose the combined print-and-web option, just 16% chose to buy access to the web content and no one chose to buy just print. See how the results differed when people were given an option to buy access to web content for $59, or the combined print-and-web subscription for $125. Now 32% chose the print-and-web subscription and 68% chose the web access. The print-only became the so-called “rotten apple” when presented in with the two other options. Importantly, it also increased the combined print-and-web (apple) subscriptions. Professor Pillutla explains: “If you know that what you’re offering is superior to the decoy in every single way, you create an influential choice set. As human beings, we find it incredibly hard to ignore comparative information.”  


What does it mean for you in an influencing situation?                                   "Contemplate the choice set strategically. Think about the comparisons that people will make to gain an advantage. Beware, though, it is possible that people will pick the decoy, so make sure it is something you can realistically offer."

Deliberation style: the art of group decisions


The decoy effect is just one example of how to present information in an advantageous way. What about the way decisions are made as a group? “Deliberation style can sway the outcome,” explains Professor Pillutla. “We can learn a lot from the way that juries make decisions about the fate of defendants.” The trial process through which juries share information and vote can inform group decision-making in any setting, he explains.


He takes Negotiating and Influencing Skills for Senior Managers participants through an exercise to reveal the difference between verdict- and evidence-driven results. Two groups made up of three people are told that they belong to a committee that will decide whether a candidate is shortlisted for a job. Each group member is given a role – vice president of finance (the committee chair), sales or operations and given different pieces of information about the job candidate. They’re told that the candidate will be shortlisted if they meet two criteria – communication and self-confidence. One group member is given information that suggests the candidate meets the threshold on communication but not on self-confidence, another group member’s information suggests that the candidate meets the threshold on self-confidence but not on communication. The third is told that the candidate meets the threshold on both criteria. Professor Pillutla gives each group the same distribution of information as described above but secretly asks them to reach a decision using different deliberation methods. 


Members of group one (the verdict group) are asked to reach an individual decision on the candidate before any discussion and then asked to meet, discuss and make a decision. Members of group two (the evidence-based group) are told to withhold making any personal decisions, discuss the candidate, make a consensus judgement about each of the criteria as a group and then reach a final collective decision. 


The results show that making an individual judgement before discussing the candidate – seen with the verdict group – increases the likelihood that the candidate will not be shortlisted. Why? “When group members have already made individual decisions [the verdict group], they come with the mindset of simply voting to accept or reject the candidate. In the case above, since two committee members would have made the personal decision to reject the candidate (one on the basis that the candidate lacks communication skills and the other that the candidate lacks self-confidence), the vote results in two people not supporting the candidate. 


“The psychology of juries and group decision-making means that when we vote early on we spend time, rather than sharing information, defending the position we have already taken. If the vice president of sales has outright rejected the candidate, they will argue why this person is wrong for the job. 


“On the other hand, when groups discuss the qualifications of the candidate on each of the criteria and then make a decision, they tend to methodically run through each of the measures before making an informed decision. In this situation, if the vice president of finance proves that the candidate can communicate and is self-confident based on the facts provided, the two others who think the candidate has met the threshold on only one criteria – albeit on different ones – might be more likely to change their mind about the qualifications on the other criteria.”



What does it mean for you in a group influencing situation?                   "Understanding the group procedures will enable you to appreciate the final decision that the group makes. For example, if you want someone to be hired, consider the route of deliberation. Don’t go down the verdict-based path. Asking someone’s personal opinion can skew the entire deliberation process."

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