The Allure of Perfection
Imagine that you hear about a high school student who recently took the American College Test (ACT), used by many colleges for admissions decisions. Suppose she scored a 34 out of 36. This is a very good score, and so it would be natural for you to use this information (perhaps even without realizing you are doing so) to form a positive impression of the student’s intellectual ability or test competence. But what if you also learn about two other students who respectively scored a 35 and a perfect 36 on the same test? In the absence of other information about the students, it seems logical that you might evaluate the student who scored a 35 to be slightly more capable than the student whose score was 34 but slightly less so than the student whose score was 36.
The Perfection Premium
However, our new research reveals a different pattern of results. In the ACT scenario, the difference in perceived ability between a student who earns a perfect score of 36 and a near-perfect score of 35 is much greater than the difference between students whose scores are 35 versus 34. Given that the difference between both sets of scores is identical (1 point), this asymmetry is quite interesting. This “perfection premium” is not limited to ability ratings but applies broadly across social perception and product decision making contexts. One of our studies shows that even when choosing between pairs of socks, consumers’ general preference for the option with higher wool content is amplified when the superior option contains 100% Merino wool! It appears that people place a premium on perfection that results in inflated evaluations of individuals or products that are perfect on a numerical attribute.
Of course, there are some cases where it makes perfect sense (no pun intended) for people to exhibit a perfection premium. For instance, people might not perceive much of a difference between a bottle of spring water that is 98% pure (with 2% contaminants) and a bottle that is 99% pure (with 1% contaminants). Yet, it may be entirely rational for consumers to disproportionately value a bottle of spring water that is 100% pure (with 0% contaminants). Because the 100% pure water ensures zero chance of physical contamination, this perfection premium may be justified. Importantly, however, a contamination explanation cannot account for the perfection premium that we also observe in social perception judgments (such as intelligence ratings of individuals).
The Role of Categorization
So, if it’s not always due to physical contamination concerns, why do people exhibit the perfection premium? Our research indicates that the perfection premium arises at least in part because of a categorization process.
People form categories to simplify and organize their life. We are predisposed to sort individuals into social groups based on beliefs, values, and traits to facilitate thinking and to speed up decision making. Even when comparing and contrasting objects, consumers tend to rely on categorization as a time-saving rule of thumb. Rather than strictly relying on numerical magnitudes, people even put numbers into different categories—for instance, numbers can be classified as odd or even, and round numbers such as those ending in zero are categorized and evaluated differently than other numbers. Simply put, categorization is a fundamental, ingrained, and often automatic part of how humans think.
We hypothesized that people might sort or categorize an item or a person based on the level of perfection of its numerical attribute. Perfection is the state of being flawless or free from defect. Because perfection is unsurprisingly desired by many, we thought it might be a natural basis for categorization. That’s exactly what we found—people seem to classify both individuals and items (such as consumer goods) based on whether or not they are perfect (versus near-perfect) on a numerical scale. For example, one of our studies shows that people are much more likely to put two test takers into the same group if they both received near-perfect test scores (e.g., 86 versus 87 out of 88) than if one of the test takers earned a perfect score (e.g., 87 versus 88 out of 88). Furthermore, our results are consistent with prior research showing that categorization exaggerates the distance in evaluations between members of different groups.
Our hope is that by becoming aware of the generalized human tendency to overvalue “perfect” scores, ratings, and other numerical values, people may be better able to resist the allure of perfection when making social judgments and consumer decisions. After all, in many cases, the real difference between a perfect score and a near-perfect score may be negligible.
For Further Reading
Isaac, M. S., & Spangenberg, K. (2021). “The perfection premium.” Social Psychological and Personality Science, 12(6), 930–937. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550620944313.
Isaac, M. S., & Schindler, R. M. (2014). The top-ten effect: Consumers’ subjective categorization of ranked lists.” Journal of Consumer Research, 40(6), 1181-1202. https://doi.org/10.1086/674546.
Li, M., & Chapman, G. B. (2009). ‘100% of anything looks good’: The appeal of one hundred percent.” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 16(1), 156-162. https://doi.org/10.3758/PBR.16.1.156
Mathew S. Isaac is a Professor at the Albers School of Business and Economics at Seattle University. His research examines consumer judgment and decision making, particularly how contextual and motivational factors influence product evaluations and purchase intentions. He writes a blog for Psychology Today on the psychology of numbers, categories, and lists: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/all-things-numbered
Katie Spangenberg is a Lecturer at the Albers School of Business and Economics at Seattle University. She holds a PhD in Marketing from the University of Washington Foster School of Business.