Stuck in the middle with you

By Hilary VizelIllustration of woman choosing from three sizes of coffee cup

Just as Goldilocks preferred her porridge tepid, her chair average and her mattress only semi-soft, we have a natural tendency to feel “just right” in the middle of any scale. This has less to do with our individual needs or tastes and more to do with our natural tendency to avoid choosing options that are at one extreme or another. Psychologists call this Extremeness Aversion and studies have shown it can be used to manipulate our decision-making. Want to see it in action? Head to your local coffee chain. In 2012 Tim Hortons shuffled its beverage sizes so that medium became "small," large became "medium" and extra large became merely a "large." (The original small was bumped from the board entirely though you can still ask for an "extra small.") How did this affect customers? A 2008 study out of Duke University suggests that they probably continued ordering the same size and just consumed more coffee. Researchers found that extremeness aversion causes consumers to increase their beverage consumption when the smallest drink size is dropped or when a larger drink size is added to a set.

Use this knowledge Extremeness Aversion can be used to convince us to spend or consume more than we might otherwise have intended, whether it's ordering from a wine list or choosing a condo floorplan. For most major purchases, try to think about what you want and how much you plan to spend before you survey the available options. Sometimes your eyes may be bigger than your wallet.

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