It's All Relative

How comparisons create self-knowledge, action, and emotions.

What TV's House Hunters Teaches Us About Choices

When shopping for products, pastimes, or partners, uniqueness matters.

A new show that is popular in my home is House Hunters on TLC. The show features couples and families that are trying to find a new place to live. In each episode, a realtor is given a list of wants and musts from potential renters or buyers, and sets out to find a suitable location. Three properties are shown, discussion occurs, the attributes of the properties are reviewed and listed, and the renters/buyers make their decision (after this commercial break). It is always fun to guess which house will be chosen. Will they go for the place that is just outside their preferred area of interest, but that has all the space they want? Will they go for the place that has the best location, but lacks the big yard that they wanted? These shows are interesting, and slightly addicting, because the audience is trying to guess what information people will weigh in making their choices. One partner wants a modern kitchen, another wants an open-concept floor, which will win?

Another interesting thing about the show are the kinds of houses that are shown. The realtors often show houses that are very different from one another. Sometimes, the first two houses seem fairly similar in their plusses and minuses, then the realtors will throw in a third house that is outside of the box (and occasionally, the family budget). What is strategy here? What does this make for better television?

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The decision process called feature matching can explain why two similar and one unique house makes for greater drama and inconsistency than three mostly similar houses. In Sara Hodges' research on feature matching, she has studied how people use information about apartments to make choices.

The idea is fairly simple. When we are trying to choose between several options, we might make a list of all the attributes of each house. Then, the shared features cancel each other out. So, if we are looking at two apartments that both have hardwood floors, galley kitchens, and designated parking spaces, those features will not play a role in our decisions. This make sense and seems efficient. The decision becomes a matter of weighing the relative value of the unique positive features (e.g. mature trees) and the unique negative attributes (e.g. hot pink tile in the bathroom).  

But, remember, these TV shows present people with three options, not just two. What happens when the third option is thrown in there? Do those features remain cancelled out?

In Prof. Hodges research, when people were first asked to make a decision between two similar options, they engaged in feature cancelling and made choices based on unique characteristics. When participants read about apartments that had 5 shared positive features (e.g. big windows) and 3 unique negative features (e.g. no deadbolt on the door). Participants rated each apartment, then were shown a third apartment that was described as completely unique (but was slightly less positive than the first two apartments). The questions was: how did seeing the similar apartments first influence ratings of the unique apartment?

It turns out that once people stopped thinking about the hardwood floors and big windows, they didn't consider the value of those features again, even when faced with option that didn't have them. That is, even though the third, unique, apartment didn't have all the big windows, that lack did not affect ratings. To put it simply, a less good, but unique, apartment looked better after seeing two similarly good apartments.

Back to House Hunters, this means that when realtors show the wild card house after showing two similarly positive houses, there is a greater chance that the wild card house will be chosen than if it were seen first.

Camille Johnson, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and Associate Professor of Organization and Management at San Jose State University.

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