Perceptual Contrasts

“The processes of perception are inaccessible; only the products are conscious and, of course, it is the products that are necessary.” – Gregory Bateson

Before Mitch walked into the car dealership, the one thing he would’ve absolutely bet the farm on was that he would never spend an extra $800 for some nice wheel rims. He had a budget, and all he wanted was a decent car at an affordable price.

But as Mitch drove out of the dealership in his new car with $800 wheel rims, he wasn’t sorry that he’d shelled out the extra cash for them. In fact, he was happy he’d done it. How did the car salesman convince Mitch to pay for a perk he didn’t need? He used a persuasion technique called “Perceptual Contrasting,” which involves convincing a subject to view a proposal in a much more favorable light by contrasting it with other facts.

Mitch’s visit to the car dealer went something like this:

The salesman showed Mitch a few cars until he found one he liked. After taking it for a test drive, the time had come to crunch the numbers … and Mitch was prepared to negotiate ferociously. There was the typical haggling that goes on at a car dealer … the back and forth where the salesman “checks with the manager.” Finally, a price was agreed upon: $30,000. It was slightly more than Mitch had been prepared to pay, but the monthly payments worked out to be about $540 a month, which he could handle.

Then… the salesman asked Mitch if he wanted those fancy wheel rims. Mitch’s stomach dropped. The truth was, he really liked those fancy rims, but he didn’t want to spend more money. “Well, how much are they?” Mitch asked. “I don’t want to drop a lot of money on something I don’t need.”

The salesman nodded with empathy. He proceeded to explain that the rims weren’t cheap. In fact, they were about $800. But, the salesman pointed out, that $800 was less than 3 percent of the total price of the car.

“If you’re going to spend all this money, shouldn’t you get the car you really want?” the salesman asked.

How could Mitch not agree?

In and of itself, the thought of spending $800 on rims – a luxury he didn’t need – would’ve seemed crazy. Far too much money. But, when the salesman had Mitch look at it differently – as the difference between spending $30,000 (which he was already doing) and $30,800 – it now seemed fairly nominal.

The key factor in the Perceptual Contrasting technique is that it is entirely possible to alter a person’s perception of the facts, even when those facts have not changed in the slightest.

This persuasion technique can be highly effective during any kind of negotiation … not only when negotiating the price of a high-ticket item. For instance, Tom G. was able to use it to secure an additional week’s vacation time when accepting a position with a new employer.

In this case, the employer wanted to hire Tom, and Tom wanted the job. The only issue on the table was compensation. If Tom had come out right at the beginning and announced that he wanted not two but three weeks of vacation his first year on the job, his request may have sounded unreasonable. But he didn’t do that.

First, Tom negotiated his basic salary and some standard perks (such as health insurance). There was some give and take between both parties before they finally reached an agreement. Although Tom had hoped to get a little bit more money, he was fairly satisfied. His new employer was satisfied too, and was pleased by how flexible Tom had been. That’s why – with the deal basically done – when Tom mentioned that he would be totally happy if he could have a third week of vacation … the employer quickly said yes.

At this point, the employer thought of Tom as a very reasonable guy. And considering the concessions that Tom had made on big issues like salary and health insurance, an extra week of vacation seemed like a relatively small thing to give in on.

Perceptual Contrasting is also used in marketing.

You see it all the time … advertising in newspapers, television commercials, and direct-mail promotions where the product being offered is said to have a certain value that seems fairly expensive. A kitchen appliance with a value of $400, for instance.

At that price, it’s unlikely that a prospective customer will be convinced that it’s a good idea to purchase the pricey appliance. But then the marketer pulls out Perceptual Contrasting to make the sale. He’s already established the value of the appliance as $400 – and now he says he’s selling it for only $99.

Presented with the difference between that original $400 value and the actual $99 price, the prospect now perceives the appliance to be an exceptional bargain .

[Ed. Note: Larry Fredericks is an entrepreneur with a history of successful business dealings in retail, direct mail, the Internet, and real estate. He is also the creator of the Master of Persuasion program.]