A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
December 26th, 2013 by William

The Feature Positive Effect

When we go to the supermarket we’re inundated with products that claim they’re “new and improved,” or flaunt that they are “natural” or that they’re part of a healthy diet and thus will improve our life and well-being. A product that has questionable health benefits will flaunt that it has twenty different vitamins yet conveniently leave out that if you use it your cholesterol will sky-rocket. We see this type of advertising every day–and we fall for it. That’s because most of us will focus on those “good” benefits, yet we won’t question the convenient absence of any negative product traits. The “positive” features of a product somehow make us feel safe and informed.

The phenomenon in which we will, more often than not, pick products that flaunt positive results and ignore the negative ones is what’s call “The Feature Positive Effect.” Although this phenomenon has existed since advertising first began, the term “The Feature Positive Effect” was first coined by psychology researchers Robert Sainsbury and Herbert Jenkins back in 1967 when they discovered it during experiments with pigeons. There’s some irony to that, in that, when we buy a product based solely on its positive aspects then we are in fact pigeonsa gullible person, someone swindled, or the victim of a confidence trick.

The Feature Positive Effect means that what’s positive about something means more to us than what is missing, or negative. This is why everyone will tend toward believing everything they see on an official looking computer spreadsheet even though we don’t have a clue to the data behind it or, more importantly, what pertinent data may be conveniently missing. As the colloquial saying tells us: “Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.”  The Feature Positive Effect exists because we all have the tendency to have difficulty processing negative information. It’s even more profound in the case where there’s a complete lack of any negative information. Sainsbury and Jenkins called this a “non-occurrence.” The fact is we have problems perceiving non-events–we are blind to what doesn’t exist or what we’re not told.

Here’s an example of how we ignore non-events, or in this case non-bullet holes.

In World War II, British and United States air forces faced a rising number of their planes being shot down in combat, and the returning planes were badly damaged. A group of scientists were entrusted with the task of analyzing the returned planes to see if there was any pattern to the damage that would provide a clue as to where to place added armor.

The group analyzed the damaged planes and was about to make a recommendation to add armor where there were the most bullet holes, when a young Hungarian mathematician, Abraham Wald (1902–1950), who was part of the group, thought that they were making a grave mistake. Wald analyzed the damaged planes by marking where every bullet hole was on the planes and found that two major sections of the fuselage, one between the wings and the other between the tails, had fewer bullet holes. He recommended putting the armor in those places, i.e., where he saw fewer, not more holes. Why? Since the planes he analyzed hadn’t been shot down, he postulated that it must be the holes he wasn’t seeing (in the planes that weren’t returning) that were causing them to be shot down. Thus, he concluded that the extra protection should be placed in those areas where they found no bullet holes. This was exactly the opposite of what the original group was going to recommend.

Another facet of this phenomenon is the “Implied Endorsement Effect.” We will tend to choose the option that we believe someone else endorses. This explains why restaurants sell more house wines than others. We believe that because the restaurant is recommending a particular wine that it must be good. Although I’ll admit it could equally be because house wines are typically cheaper. If not for the Implied Endorsement Effect many celebrities wouldn’t have a job.

The Implied-Endorsement Effect suggests that decision makers will use the “default” of what’s already being/been done by others to make our decision for us. Thus, we have another closely tied phenomenon called “The Default Effect.”

“The Default Effect” is our tendency for clinging to the status quo. We all tend to make our past our default setting. We will subconsciously look back into our past for a similar experience, and the decision we made then, to dive our decisions in the present. Given the choice of trying something new, or sticking to the tried and true, we tend to be highly conservative, even if the change could be beneficial to us. It’s in play even when no decision options are available. This is called the “No-Action Default” which refers to the fact that we’ll tend toward making no decision when there’s an absence of choice or other pressing motivation to act.

Here we also suffer The Feature Positive Effect because we are more likely to focus on the positive aspects of our default choice option, while conveniently forgetting the negative ones. At the same time, we will remember the negative aspects of the non-default choice. In other words when there are options presented to us, other than our default, we will go out of our way to try to discredit them. We’ll do this before we will even consider the downside of our default option.

Similar to this, and a phenomenon we all also suffer from, is what’s called “The Endowment Effect.” This is the phenomenon in which most individuals tend to value an object more when they own it than when they don’t. This explains why many people are not prone to deferred gratification.

That all said, and as if by magic, once we move into management there’s another phenomenon that takes hold of us. It’s called “The Feature Negative Effect.” It rears its ugly head come performance review time. If during the year an employee displays any bad behavior or has made a mistake−however miniscule–the reviewer will most likely take that more heavily into account than any other innate talent, skill, positive accomplishment or exemplary behavior the employee has shown through the rest of the year.

However the employee (because of The Feature Positive Effect) is much more open to positive praise than to negative nit-picking. Even when the review includes constructive criticism, employees will most likely reject it no matter how useful it may be. This is the main reason the performance review process does little to motivate employees. There’s a large expectation gap.

The bottom line that all these “effects” mean that our decision process is largely driven by our tendency to not want to take the effort associated with deciding what we want. Without a choice that’s highly flaunted, endorsed by some has-been, fits our preexisting preference, or satisfies our drive to own something, identifying the best option and the underlying tradeoffs takes time and increases our cognitive effort. In other words it’s too much work.

In the workplace we see these effects as organizational amnesia–we don’t learn from the past we tend to repeat it. When faced with a problem, or dilemma, we will delve back into our past for solutions versus finding new and innovative ways to solve the problem. Or worse yet we’ll fall for the age old fallacy that “this time will be different.” The problem is that many times our memory paints past experiences as being much rosier than they really were. This is The Positive Feature Effect in action–we make the same mistakes over and over again.


2 Responses to “The Feature Positive Effect”
  1. Anonymous says

    Great work! That is the type of info that are meant to be shared
    around the internet. Disgrace on Google for not positioning this post higher!

  2. Antwan Widrick says

    That is a good tip especially to those new to the blogosphere. Brief but very accurate information… Appreciate your sharing this one. A must read article!

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