Christopher Hsee, George Loewenstein, Sally Blount and Max H. Bazerman once ran an experiment in which they asked people browsing used textbooks how much they would pay for a music dictionary that had 10,000 words and was in perfect condition. Another group was asked how much they would pay for a music dictionary with 20,000 words but a torn front cover. Neither group knew about the other dictionary. On average, the students were willing to pay $24 for the 10,000-word dictionary and $20 for the cover-torn 20,000-word one. The cover – irrelevant to looking up words – made a big difference.
The researchers then cornered another group and presented them with both options simultaneously. Now the students could compare the two options side by side. That changed their perception of the products. In this easy-to-compare group, the students said they would pay $19 for the 10,000-word dictionary and $27 for the 20,000-word one with the torn cover. Suddenly, with the introduction of a more clearly comparable aspect – number of words – the larger dictionary became more valuable, despite the torn cover.