Decoy Effect In A Nutshell

The decoy effect is a psychological phenomenon where inferior – or decoy – options influence consumer preferences. Businesses use the decoy effect to nudge potential customers toward the desired target product. The decoy effect is staged by placing a competitor product and a decoy product, which is primarily used to nudge the customer toward the target product.

Understanding the decoy effect

Price is one of the most sensitive elements of a marketing mix.

Businesses understand this well and have devised pricing strategies that encourage the consumer to spend more.

The decoy effect is one such strategy.

To study how consumer product preferences are influenced by the effect, National Geographic studied the popcorn purchasing habits of cinemagoers. 

When faced with only two choices – a $3 small popcorn or a $7 large popcorn – most purchased the small popcorn noting that the large was too expensive.

The experiment was then repeated with the addition of a $6.50 medium popcorn, and the consumers were again asked to choose.

This time, most chose the large $7 option.

By adding the medium-sized alternative, greater value was given to the larger size which was previously deemed too expensive.

In the context of the decoy effect, the medium $6.50 popcorn was the decoy because it was inferior to the larger option in value for money.

Decoys are deliberately inserted into product ranges to exploit consumer tendencies toward prioritizing value for money. 

In dollar terms, the cinema was able to increase revenue by directing consumers from the small $3 option to the most expensive $7 option. The consumer, however, is more likely to spend money on a product or service they didn’t want or need. 

Components of the decoy effect

The decoy effect is based on the concept of asymmetric domination, most evident when a consumer has three products or services to choose from. To explain this concept in more detail, let’s give each product a name:

The target product

Or the product that a business wants to you purchase.

The competitor product

Or the product that competes with the target.

The decoy product

Or the product designed to nudge a consumer toward the target product.

The decoy effect relies on the decoy product being asymmetrically dominated by the target and competitor product in at least two categories.

In the popcorn example, the two categories are price and size.

The study was successful because the medium popcorn was a decoy that was asymmetrically dominated.

In other words, the medium popcorn:

  • Contained more popcorn than the small size while being more expensive. As a result, it was only partially superior to the small size.
  • Contained less popcorn than the large size, but given that it was only 50 cents cheaper, represented less value for money than the large size.

Here, the decoy (medium) size is inserted to make the larger size more attractive.

It is not inserted to make the smaller size more attractive, making the dominance asymmetrical.

Applying the decoy effect in marketing

Marketers can use the decoy effect to their advantage and happily, research has found that consumer awareness of the effect does not diminish their tendency to choose the most expensive option.

Companies that offer tiered pricing or subscription plans are most likely to benefit from inserting decoys into their ranges. 

Hosting companies can offer a feature-packed “Platinum” hosting plan that is only slightly more expensive than a lesser equipped “Gold” plan.

Coffee shops can offer large coffees closer in price to medium coffees.

In real estate, the value of a particular house can be highlighted by comparing it against two similarly priced houses with fewer features occupying less favorable neighborhoods.

Decoy Effect vs. Anchoring

The anchoring effect describes the human tendency to rely on an initial piece of information (the “anchor”) to make subsequent judgments or decisions. Price anchoring, then, is the process of establishing a price point that customers can reference when making a buying decision.

Connected to the decoy effect, anchoring also leverages framing to change the perception of consumers toward various options.

The goal of anchoring is to channel users toward a specific price option.

Key takeaways

  • The decoy effect is a phenomenon where consumers change preference between two product options when a third product option is made available.
  • Marketers use the decoy effect to direct consumers to the product they want them to purchase. This is achieved through asymmetric domination, where a decoy product makes just one of the two remaining products attractive.
  • The decoy effect has almost limitless applications in business and marketing. However, it is most effective where tiered product ranges or subscription services are offered.

Connected Thinking Frameworks

Convergent vs. Divergent Thinking

Convergent thinking occurs when the solution to a problem can be found by applying established rules and logical reasoning. Whereas divergent thinking is an unstructured problem-solving method where participants are encouraged to develop many innovative ideas or solutions to a given problem. Where convergent thinking might work for larger, mature organizations where divergent thinking is more suited for startups and innovative companies.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves analyzing observations, facts, evidence, and arguments to form a judgment about what someone reads, hears, says, or writes.

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is a holistic means of investigating the factors and interactions that could contribute to a potential outcome. It is about thinking non-linearly, and understanding the second-order consequences of actions and input into the system.

Vertical Thinking

Vertical thinking, on the other hand, is a problem-solving approach that favors a selective, analytical, structured, and sequential mindset. The focus of vertical thinking is to arrive at a reasoned, defined solution.

Maslow’s Hammer

Maslow’s Hammer, otherwise known as the law of the instrument or the Einstellung effect, is a cognitive bias causing an over-reliance on a familiar tool. This can be expressed as the tendency to overuse a known tool (perhaps a hammer) to solve issues that might require a different tool. This problem is persistent in the business world where perhaps known tools or frameworks might be used in the wrong context (like business plans used as planning tools instead of only investors’ pitches).

Peter Principle

The Peter Principle was first described by Canadian sociologist Lawrence J. Peter in his 1969 book The Peter Principle. The Peter Principle states that people are continually promoted within an organization until they reach their level of incompetence.

Straw Man Fallacy

The straw man fallacy describes an argument that misrepresents an opponent’s stance to make rebuttal more convenient. The straw man fallacy is a type of informal logical fallacy, defined as a flaw in the structure of an argument that renders it invalid.

Streisand Effect

The Streisand Effect is a paradoxical phenomenon where the act of suppressing information to reduce visibility causes it to become more visible. In 2003, Streisand attempted to suppress aerial photographs of her Californian home by suing photographer Kenneth Adelman for an invasion of privacy. Adelman, who Streisand assumed was paparazzi, was instead taking photographs to document and study coastal erosion. In her quest for more privacy, Streisand’s efforts had the opposite effect.


As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.

Recognition Heuristic

The recognition heuristic is a psychological model of judgment and decision making. It is part of a suite of simple and economical heuristics proposed by psychologists Daniel Goldstein and Gerd Gigerenzer. The recognition heuristic argues that inferences are made about an object based on whether it is recognized or not.

Representativeness Heuristic

The representativeness heuristic was first described by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The representativeness heuristic judges the probability of an event according to the degree to which that event resembles a broader class. When queried, most will choose the first option because the description of John matches the stereotype we may hold for an archaeologist.

Take-The-Best Heuristic

The take-the-best heuristic is a decision-making shortcut that helps an individual choose between several alternatives. The take-the-best (TTB) heuristic decides between two or more alternatives based on a single good attribute, otherwise known as a cue. In the process, less desirable attributes are ignored.


The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.

Bundling Bias

The bundling bias is a cognitive bias in e-commerce where a consumer tends not to use all of the products bought as a group, or bundle. Bundling occurs when individual products or services are sold together as a bundle. Common examples are tickets and experiences. The bundling bias dictates that consumers are less likely to use each item in the bundle. This means that the value of the bundle and indeed the value of each item in the bundle is decreased.

Barnum Effect

The Barnum Effect is a cognitive bias where individuals believe that generic information – which applies to most people – is specifically tailored for themselves.

First-Principles Thinking

First-principles thinking – sometimes called reasoning from first principles – is used to reverse-engineer complex problems and encourage creativity. It involves breaking down problems into basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up. Elon Musk is among the strongest proponents of this way of thinking.

Ladder Of Inference

The ladder of inference is a conscious or subconscious thinking process where an individual moves from a fact to a decision or action. The ladder of inference was created by academic Chris Argyris to illustrate how people form and then use mental models to make decisions.

Six Thinking Hats Model

The Six Thinking Hats model was created by psychologist Edward de Bono in 1986, who noted that personality type was a key driver of how people approached problem-solving. For example, optimists view situations differently from pessimists. Analytical individuals may generate ideas that a more emotional person would not, and vice versa.

Second-Order Thinking

Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.

Bounded Rationality

Bounded rationality is a concept attributed to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist interested in decision-making and how we make decisions in the real world. In fact, he believed that rather than optimizing (which was the mainstream view in the past decades) humans follow what he called satisficing.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor states that one should not increase (beyond reason) the number of entities required to explain anything. All things being equal, the simplest solution is often the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English theologian William of Ockham.

Mandela Effect

The Mandela effect is a phenomenon where a large group of people remembers an event differently from how it occurred. The Mandela effect was first described in relation to Fiona Broome, who believed that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s. While Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and died 23 years later, Broome remembered news coverage of his death in prison and even a speech from his widow. Of course, neither event occurred in reality. But Broome was later to discover that she was not the only one with the same recollection of events.

Crowding-Out Effect

The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What in marketing can be associated with social proof.

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