The Attraction Effect: A Behavioral Science Principle That is Affecting Your Product’s Adoption Rate

By Sentient Decision Science, Inc.
June 8, 2014
Imagine the following scenario: you are choosing between two high-end toasters:

  • Toaster A (which has two slots, both wide enough for bagels, and costs $49)
  • Toaster B (which has four slots, all wide enough for bagels and costs $89)

Assume these toasters are equal on every other dimension. Which would you choose?
Your choice in this case is going to be a trade-off between number of slots and price. Depending on how much you value four slots (you might need to make a lot of toast at once), you might be willing to pony up the extra $40 bucks and go for Toaster B.
This is a classic choice scenario in consumer decision making where there is no dominated option. One option is better on number of slots and one is better on price. Assume in this scenario that 50% of consumers choose Toaster A and 50% choose Toaster B.

The Introduction of a Dominated Option

Now consider a slightly different scenario where the choice set includes a third Toaster, let’s call it Toaster C.

  • Toaster C has two slots, it costs $49, but it isn’t wide enough for bagels.

In this scenario, Toaster C is a dominated option. It is dominated by Toaster A, because it is equal on all other attributes but inferior on the slot width. What are the chances you would choose C? Probably close to zero.

How Does the Attraction Effect Work?

What is so interesting about a choice set that includes a dominated option like this, is that even though practically no one chooses Toaster C, it actually produces an attraction effect toward the Toaster A. The preference for Toaster A increases disproportionally.
The inclusion of a dominated alternative that is closer to Toaster A essentially steals share from Toaster B, resulting in choice shares such as 70% for Toaster A and 30% for Toaster B. This is a classic behavioral science principle based on asymmetric dominance, more simply called the attraction effect.

When Does the Attraction Effect Most Influence Behavior?

Recent implicit research has shown an interesting advancement on when the attraction effect is more likely to influence behavior. These findings may have profound implications for your marketing strategy.
Kahn, Zhu and Kalra (2011) have new data that demonstrates that a consumer’s mental frame of mind when making the decision determines whether the attraction effect will impact your behavior, and further that simple marketing manipulations can change the frame of mind and increase the degree of the effect.

Cultivate a Forward-Looking Mindset

Across six experiments investigating consumer choices for flights, grills, computers, tires and apartments, the authors demonstrate that a mental frame of mind that is more forward-looking (temporally distant) results in greater selection of the dominating choice option (e.g. Toaster A).
The authors show that the forward-looking mindset can be manipulated by simply raising awareness of the time to ship an item! If your toaster is Toaster A–congratulations on your increase in market share! If your toaster is Toaster B–I’d get to work on introducing a product that has a dominated alternative currently in the marketplace.
Attraction Effect Marketing
In terms of marketing manipulations, there are several quick ideas that could be applied by to the behavioral science inclined marketer.

Three Steps to Leverage the Attraction Effect in Your Marketing

  1. First, determine whether any products in your line have dominated alternatives in the marketplace (for example, the two products are the same on all attributes, except your product costs less, or the two products cost the same, but your product has an advantage on one important attribute).
  2. Next, assess any distances (spatial, temporal, physical or mental) associated with obtaining your product. For example, does the consumer need to drive to the store to buy your product? Does the consumer have to wait for the product to arrive in the mail? Or does time need to pass before the consumer can enjoy the pleasures of your product (e.g. vacation packages, delayed gratification products, etc.)?
  3. Once you have determined a “distance” that is part of the purchase and consumption of your product, develop marketing communications that prime that distance in the consumer’s mind at the point of purchase. This framing will place your product at an advantage over your competitor as long as the dominated alternative is also salient to the consumer. Happy behavioral science based marketing!

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