75% choose relative asymmetry


Behavioural economist and Duke University academic Dan Ariely carried out a study in which respondents were initially shown two symmetrical faces (A and B) and asked which one they preferred. The responses were – 50/50 with no difference in total preferences.

When the sample was shown a third face – an asymmetrical version of face A – the findings were very different. Some 75% of respondents now preferred the symmetrical version of face A with 25% preferring face B.

This finding demonstrates two things that have been replicated time and again in research:

  • Symmetrical faces are preferred over a symmetrical faces, with symmetry a proven measure of beauty.
  • When comparisons can be made, they will be made – and decision making will become relative.

Relativity is one of 25 drivers of human behaviour I will address over the next five weeks. As outlined in the lead article to this week’s THE REPORT, reletivity is a critically important driver of human and therefore consumer behaviour, it directly impacts on the success of your business – and will almost always have a greater impact that reality.

Most decisions made by most people are based on relative rather than absolute measures.

  • Research has found that happiness is far more related to relative satisfaction that absolute satisfaction. It is all about the marginal additional satisfaction.
  • Research has consistently found that happiness is directly related to relative income and not absolute income. It is all about what others are payed.
  • Research suggests that the quality of a motor car is more related to the relative price of the vehicle as opposed to the price in isolation. It is all about expectations.

Perceptions are important, but they are not absolute. They are all relative. We instinctively make comparisons and these comparisons lead to our perceptions. Perceptions and developed in a context and that context includes other similar products and services.

Consider this. If you live in Melbourne, a week in Bagdad would be seen as very risky and to be avoided at just about any cost. If on the other hand you live in Mosel to the east of Bagdad, a town now held by ISIS – a week in Bagdad might be viewed as a holiday.

The implications of this tendency towards perceptions being based on relative judgements are profound. It is important to understand that:

  • Consumer perceptions and therefore decisions will not be made in isolation or simply on the basis of the facts you communicate about your product or service.
  • Competitive products will almost certainly be taken into account when consumers develop a perception of your product or service.
  • Influencing the comparisons that your target market makes can be a very powerful tool for influencing perceptions and therefore behaviour.

There is often criticism of advertising that draws comparisons between two brands. While comparisons that sledge the competitive product are not desirable on a number of levels – it seems clear that comparisons will be made and influencing those comparisons can be beneficial.


  1. Few consumer perceptions are absolute. Almost all are relative.
  2. Perceptions are made in a context which includes competitive options.
  3. Influencing comparisons can be very effective in influencing decisions.
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