Never mind the quality, look at the width

Image by Flickr user Scott Robinson. Click for SourceThe New York Times has a fascinating snippet on how cooperation with others to get a monetary reward is not influenced by the value of the reward, but by the numbers that describe it.

In the study, when the reward was described as rising from 3 cents to 300 cents cooperation increased – but when it was described as rising from 3 cents to 3 dollars, it had no effect.

The experiment was carried by psychologists Ellen Furlong and John Opfer who were interested in comparing how our reasoning is affected by the representation of value.

The researchers asked volunteers to take part in a behavioral test known as the prisoner’s dilemma, in which two partners are offered various rewards to either work together or defect.

The idea is that in the long term, the participants earn the most money by cooperating. But in any given round of play, they make the most if they decide to turn against their partner while he stays loyal. (The reward is lowest when both partners defect.)

When the reward for cooperation was increased to 300 cents from 3 cents, the researchers found, the level of cooperation went up. But when the reward went from 3 cents to $3, it did not.

We covered a study late last year that also found a similar effect: people were swayed more by higher numbers in adverts even when the alternative described exactly the same thing but using smaller units.

Link to short NYT piece ‘$1? No Thanks. 100 Cents? You Bet’.
Link to academic article on study.
Link to DOI entry for same.


  1. Posted February 5, 2009 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    That’s funny. Okay from now on, I’m giving my kids their allowance in cents!

  2. Mark(p.s.)
    Posted February 7, 2009 at 1:37 am | Permalink

    300 cents is not 3$ what?

  3. Posted February 9, 2009 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    Sounds even funnier when you see it in real life. Here’s a youtube vid of a verizon customer service guy getting a little muddled over whether $0.002 and 0.002c are the same:

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