The “Presenter’s Paradox”: Don’t Cheapen Your Gift, Under the Tree or At the Office

by Scott Crabtree

Thanks for the cheap puffy coat!

A couple of Christmases ago, I got my wife a nice puffy coat, and a pair of cheap mittens to go with it. By adding the mittens, I thought I was making a good present even better. Little did I know that I was in fact making my wife perceive the overall present as less special. Many of us may be making the same mistake, called the “presenter’s paradox”, whether giving gifts, presenting information to others, or even summarizing our accomplishments for our boss.

What is the “Presenter’s Paradox”?

Woman wearing a nice
Don’t cheapen a nice gift like her coat!

In a series of studies published by Kimberlee Weaver of Virginia Tech and Stephen M. Garcia & Norbert Schwarz from the University of Michigan, they describe the “presenter’s paradox”. In the eyes of most presenters more is better, whether presenting information or gifts.  The paradox is that in the eyes of most recipients, a less valuable addition lessens the perceived value of the whole package. This is consistent with many other studies that show that our brains don’t remember or even perceive everything in the world accurately.  Instead we perceive and remember an abstract representation that is “good enough” to capture the essence of what we’ve seen. The essence of a gift that includes a nice puffy coat and cheap pair of mittens seems to be roughly an average of the two, instead of the sum of the two.

The “Presenter’s Paradox” affects info, too

The studies by Weaver, Garcia and Schwarz show the same effect is at play with information. If you present five great points of information to your boss and one minor point that is of slight value, her perception will be worse than if you left out the minor point. Although you present more information overall, the lower value information pulls down the overall perception of your work.

Of course whenever I present, I want my presentation to be the best possible.  I often work hard to include as much useful information as I can fit. After reading this study, I will now work to trim any information that is more of an aside than a critical point. In addition to avoiding the “presenter’s paradox”, I will also give my audience more time and space to absorb the critical information.

I also wonder how this applies to the self-evaluations many will write soon as part of an annual review process. In past years I have always included every little contribution I could think of, working on the assumption that more is better. I now believe that it’s likely that including minor contributions only weakens the perceptions of my major accomplishments.  Until a study is published that directly addresses this, I suggest all of us are probably better off completing and describing only our strongest achievements.

What do you think? What is your experience giving and receiving packages of presents or information? Have you fallen victim to the “presenter’s paradox”? I look forward to your comments on www.HappyBrainScience.com