Separate Versus Comparative Evaluation

Decision contexts can facilitate or hamper attribute evaluation, and this can alter attribute weights. Not surprisingly, an attribute whose value is clear can have greater impact than an attribute whose value is vague. The effects of ease of evaluation, referred to as "evaluability," occur, for example, when an attribute proves difficult to gauge in isolation but easier to evaluate in a comparative setting (Hsee, 1996; Hsee, Loewenstein, Blount, &Bazerman, 1999). In one study, subjects were presented with two second-hand music dictionaries: one with 20,000 entries but a slightly torn cover, and the other with 10,000 entries and an unblemished cover. Subjects had only a vague notion of how many entries to expect in a music dictionary; when they saw these one at a time, they were willing to pay more for the dictionary with the new cover than for the one with a cover that was slightly torn. When the dictionaries were evaluated concurrently, however, the number-of-entries attribute became salient: Most subjects obviously preferred the dictionary with more entries, despite the inferior cover.

For another example, consider a job that pays $80,000 a year at a firm where one's peers receive $100,000, compared with a job that pays $70,000 while coworkers are paid $50,000. Consistent with the fact that most people prefer higher incomes, a majority of second-year MBA students who compared the two options preferred the job with the higher absolute - despite the lower relative - income. When the jobs are contemplated separately however, the precise merits of one's own salary are hard to gauge, but earning less than comparable others renders the former job relatively less attractive than the latter, where one's salary exceeds one's peers'. Indeed, the majority of MBA students who evaluated the two jobs separately anticipated higher satisfaction in the job with the lower salary but the higher relative position, obviously putting more weight on the latter attribute in the context of separate evaluation (Bazerman, Schroth, Shah, Diekmann, & Tenbrunsel, 1994).

In the same vein, decision principles that are hard to apply in isolated evaluation may prove decisive in comparative settings, producing systematic fluctuations in attribute weights. Kahneman and Ritov (1994), for example, asked participants about their willingness to contribute to several environmental programs. One program was geared toward saving dolphins in the Mediterranean Sea; another funded free medical checkups for farm workers at risk for skin cancer. When asked which program they would rather support, the vast majority chose the medical checkups for farm workers, presumably following the principle that human lives come before those of animals. However, when asked separately for the largest amount they would be willing to pay for each intervention, respondents, moved by the animals' vivid plight, were willing to pay more for the dolphins than for workers' checkups. In a similar application, potential jurors awarded comparable dollar amounts to plaintiffs who had suffered either physical or financial harm, as long as the cases were evaluated separately. However, in concurrent evaluation, award amounts increased dramatically when the harm was physical as opposed to financial, affirming the notion that personal harm is the graver offense (Sunstein, Kahneman, Schkade, & Ritov, 2001).

Attribute weights, which are normatively assumed to remain stable, systematically shift and give rise to patterns of inconsistent preferences. Notably, discrepancies between separate versus concurrent evaluation have profound implications for intuition and for policy. Outcomes in life are typically experienced one at a time: A person lives through one scenario or another. Normative intuitions, however, typically arise from concurrent introspection: We entertain a scenario along with its alternatives. When an event triggers reactions that stem from its being experienced in isolation, important aspects of the experience will be misconstrued by intuitions that arise from concurrent evaluation (see Shafir, 2002).

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