BSR: The Decoy Effect & Chasing the Bell


This week’s BSR is in two parts: the decoy effect and chasing the bell.

The Decoy Effect

If you occasionally eat out, I suspect you recognize that familiar feeling each time the waiter presents you with the drinks’ menu. You take a brisk survey of the pages seeing both familiar and unfamiliar names of the alcoholic and non-alcoholic varieties. You wonder whether you should stick to the beverages that you know or venture into unknown territory. Since such moments are occasional and therefore special, the urge for adventure is tempting, a circumstance that immediately disqualifies normal beers.

You look at the cocktails and wines but since you’re not quite the connoisseur, you aren’t sure what to pick and whether to get the 125ml glass, the 250ml, or the full bottle. The 125ml glass looks frighteningly small for the price while the bottle looks hideously overpriced. You probably end up settling for the 250ml glass. The other evening, I saw that the restaurant was offering half a litre – less than a normal bottle but an aggregate of two of the 250ml glasses. I thought since I might buy two 250ml glasses I might as well take the half litre. Up to now, I’m not sure I made the rational choice. But I do now believe I fell for the decoy effect. I derive some comfort, however, from the fact that it was a very good red.

This, of course, is not a wine story, but do bear it in mind if you may because the process by which I made my choice that evening is the subject of this part of the BSR.   

Let me describe another situation that is familiar to most people. You want to buy a product and there are two choices where one is more expensive than the other. Let us call these Option A and Option B. Price is very important in making a choice but there are also specific qualities that are associated with each option to make one more attractive compared to the other. You might spend ages trying to figure out what is better value for money between Option A which is cheaper but has fewer qualities and Option B which although more expensive has more qualities. We have all encountered this situation, whether we are buying a new smartphone, computer, or a bottle of cooking oil.

This is where the vendor enters the scene with an all too common but fantastically cunning trick. He will offer you a third option, Option C. This option will have a price and qualities that are inferior to one of the products but only partially inferior to the other one. In other words, it will be inferior to one of the options but will be partly better and partly worse than the other option. The name for this third option is that it is an “asymmetrically dominated” product concerning the option that is superior in every respect. It is completely dominated by that option and only partially dominated by the other. In this case, Option C will be asymmetrically dominated by Option B.

In such a scenario, the consumer will end up choosing the dominant option (Option B) although it is the more expensive of the original two options. The introduction of the third option is a game-changer. It suddenly made Option B look better value for money. The third option is called a decoy. The decoy is introduced to direct you towards the target option, the one that the seller always wanted you to buy because it is the most profitable for him. He always wanted you to choose Option B and introduced Option C to nudge you towards it. This phenomenon is known as the Decoy Effect or sometimes, the Asymmetric Dominance Effect.

One of the common examples used to illustrate the decoy effect is the experiment by behavioural economist Dan Ariely who tested the preferences of 100 students regarding the pricing structure of The Economist[1]. In the first scenario, he gave 3 options: a web-only subscription ($59); a print-only subscription ($125), and a package of both web and print subscriptions ($125). 84% chose the combined package, while 16% chose the web-only subscription. No one chose the print-only subscription. In the second scenario, he removed the print-only subscription and offered them the web-only subscription and the combined web and print subscription. 68% chose the web-only subscription while 32% picked the combined web and print subscription. What accounts for the significant changes? In the first scenario, the print-only subscription option was a decoy that nudged consumers towards the more expensive option. There was no decoy in the second scenario. 

You can read more about the decoy effect in this excellent article in The Conversation. If you think you’re immune to the decoy effect, just look at how your favourite smartphone brand is priced. There is always a decoy item in their range of products. But let’s move on to the political context and how the decoy effect might be a useful tool to influence or simply understand voting behaviour.  

Why does this matter in politics?

The relevance of the decoy effect is how individuals can be influenced to make certain choices without really knowing that they are being manipulated. Democratic politics is by its very nature a game of choices. A voter must choose between candidates that present themselves at an election. Although it is normal to have multiple candidates in an election, usually there are 2 major rivals. In such a situation, a third seemingly serious candidate may provide the decoy effect for one of the main candidates. The dominant candidate that wants to create a decoy effect might sponsor and/or promote a third candidate in the same election. They know the third candidate will never win, but he or she might provide a point of comparison between the main rivals, nudging voters to think that they are better.

It is common knowledge that all things being equal, the two major candidates for the 2023 election will be Emmerson Mnangagwa and Nelson Chamisa. This is based on the outcome of the last election in 2018 where each man won at least 2 million votes. This is reinforced by recent data from the Afrobarometer Survey Report released in July 2021 which placed the two men at the top of the ladder, with the rest of the candidates commanding just 1% of the national support. The third party will be the Mwonzora-led outfit. There are reasons why the Mnangagwa regime has actively promoted and supported this third option as a player in the political arena. He knows it is not a rival to his ambitions for a second term. He is aware that it has no hope of winning an election. But he believes it can be useful in several respects, one of which is the decoy effect.

Since it shares roots with the MDC Alliance led by Nelson Chamisa, it is naturally associated and compared with it in the minds of voters. The perception of a divided opposition which is given fuel by the existence of the Mwonzora-led outfit works favourably for Mnangagwa and ZANU PF, even if it is not backed by evidence. Indeed, even well-meaning observers play up this notion of a divided opposition even when empirical data is demonstrating that the schisms in the opposition leaders have had no significant impact on people’s choices. In a possible case of confirmation bias, where people ignore data that counters their perceptions, the findings of Afrobarometer are treated as if they do not exist[2].

Mnangagwa and ZANU PF will promote and aid the Mwonzora-led outfit because it provides a potentially useful decoy. They hope that the ordinary voter might feel despondent about the state and prospects of the opposition parties in their “divided” state and feel that it is better to go with a seemingly united ZANU PF. Much depends on whether the MDC Alliance has a full appreciation of what is happening, the role of the decoy effect, and its potential hazards. The voter’s calculation will be like the mother who must choose between three bottles of cooking oil, where one is placed on the shelf not because it will be bought, but because it is a decoy designed to nudge the customer toward the more expensive bottle. To what extent might the decoy effect play a role in our politics? Has it played a role in previous elections, for example in 2008? The application is a work in progress, but I just thought I would drop it here to provoke the imagination.

Chasing the sound of the bell

Bress was a short bull that appeared to have suffered stunted growth at an early age. It was not very useful. There was no prospect that one day it might join a span of oxen to pull the plough or cart. But it was also very stubborn and mischievous. Villagers said it behaved like a human being. It had a penchant for sneaking away and straying into the maize fields. This often got the village boys into serious trouble for not keeping a watchful eye on Bress.

Villagers have a way of enhancing vigilance when dealing with naughty cattle like Bress. They tie a bell around its neck. That way, whenever it moves, the bell rings and you know where the cattle are. It’s the villagers’ version of GPS. So, the elders tied a bell around Bress’ neck. This made life difficult for the mischievous bull because its straying antics were kept in check.

Soon, however, Bress had adapted. He understood what was happening and why it had become so easy to catch him out before he strayed into his favourite maize fields. He would walk very slowly and stealthily, or he would just behind a bush and stand there for as long as was possible to avoid detection. Later, when you were all gone or you were distracted for whatever reason, Bress made his way to the maize fields. He never made a mistake. He had mastered the art of beating the bell. That’s Bress’ story but let us pause for a moment and meet the other character in this story, Givhi.  

He was born Gift but no one ever called him by that name. The tongues of the villagers found comfort in calling him Givhi. He is the nephew of the village, muzukuru. Givhi is a natural comedian and prankster. When you are with him, you’re guaranteed to laugh all day, especially when the wise waters are in full flow. Had circumstances been different and had Lady Fortuna been kinder, he might have found fame beyond our villages. Still, we are happy to have him to ourselves, muzukuru Givhi. 

It happened on a quiet mid-summer afternoon. Most of the villagers had left the fields for lunch. They had spent all morning weeding the fields. The maize was nearly shoulder-high and the season was very promising. As it was a school day, the village kids had gone to school. It was, therefore, the elderly people who were in the village and the atmosphere was very peaceful.

The peace and quietness of the village were breached when a bell was heard at one end of the village. Suddenly, one of the elders raised the alarm. Bress had strayed into the fields, she screamed. They listened carefully and for sure Bress’ bell could be heard at the end of the fields. The old men and women at that end of the village got up and ran to chase Bress away from the fields. But they found nothing at that end of the field.

Suddenly, as they were thinking of returning home believing they had misheard the bell, Bress’ bell rang from one of the maize fields in the middle. They began to run in that direction shouting “Bress! Bress! Bress!”. They got there and there was no Bress to be seen. Instead, they heard elders at the other end of the fields shouting that Bress must be near them because the bell was so close. They started again.

For nearly 30 minutes, the elders ran around searching for Bress in the maize fields. The moment they got to the position where they had heard the bell, they heard it ringing at the other end of the field. It was utter chaos and confusion. Since Bress was already notorious for his sneaky ways, they were convinced the bull was up to its ways again.

Then it all went quiet. They waited for a while just to be sure. When they were satisfied, they returned to their homes. They were supposed to be resting. But they had spent their lunch hour running around the fields because of Bress’ antics. “Chimombe ichochi hachinzwi!”, (Bress is full of mischief) one of the elderly women who had also joined the chase said. “Chinoita kunge munhu!”, (It behaves like a person) another one remarked. “Hachina kana basa, misikanzwa chete!”, (It’s useless. It just makes trouble for us) one of the men said.

But Bress had had nothing to do with it. As it turned out, Bress’ bell had fallen off. When Givhi picked it, he decided to prank the village elders. And boy did he give them the runaround. The village elders never knew what happened that day. Later, it was Givhi himself who disclosed his part in the chaos and confusion of that afternoon. The story is still told today back in the village. And there is no better teller of the story than Givhi himself.

As aficionados of the BSR will know, every story is told for a good reason. This is not just about muzukuru Givhi, the mischievous Bress, and the village elders who were given the run around that hot summer afternoon. But it is not for me to impose interpretations on the readers. Like the story of good old Mamvura, the chap who drove the bus at Sadza Growth Point when everybody thought it was impossible, the story is open to all manner of interpretation. 

But if my hand is forced, let me end by saying be careful not to be drawn to every noise that you hear. Some noises are deliberately created to draw you away from things that matter. When you hear a sound, as the village elders did, it is not always because Bress has strayed into the maize. Sometimes there is a hand that is playing games. The elders should have been resting in their compounds at lunchtime before returning to the fields for the afternoon shift. Instead, they spent all afternoon chasing after the sound of Bress’ bell! But good old Bress was not even there.

Have a beautiful weekend. And focus. Please #RegisterToVoteZW