Amos Tversky said that we don’t choose between options; we choose between descriptions of options. So, just because you’ve done the critical thinking to figure out the best option to recommend to someone does not mean you’re done. You then have to figure out the best way to frame it so that it is likely to be chosen.
One of the most effective ways to frame your recommended option is to sandwich it between two other plausible choices.
There’s something about a happy medium that is attractive to our minds. It’s even seen in infants as young as 7 or 8 months old, who tend to prefer stimuli that are not too simple or too complex. Just like Goldilocks, we don’t want too much or too little, we want it to be “just right”.
Or maybe (with the exception of our present political scene) it’s that we tend to shy away from extremes. It’s possible that our natural risk aversion makes the middle seem the safer choice: if the choice goes wrong it’s harder to justify the more extreme option.
In addition, making decisions can be hard work, so our minds tend to seek the path of least resistance. We like easy decisions, and the outside choices act as guardrails funneling us into the fast lane.
There is no logical reason that the middle choice is the best bet every time. Sometimes, to paraphrase Barry Goldwater, extremism is no vice and moderation is no virtue, especially when the definition of “extreme” can be so easily manipulated. In a perfectly rational world, each choice would be evaluated on its own merits, carefully balancing costs, tradeoffs and rewards.
But decisions are never perfectly rational, and even if they were, we never have perfect information, so we look for clues to help us judge and the reference points we use to evaluate a choice exert a strong gravitational pull on the decision.
That’s why a smart persuader puts just as much thought into the reference points as to the recommended option itself.
Here are some examples of how Goldilocks framing is used in persuasion:
Pricing: Marketers apply the idea all the time with pricing, especially by retailers. Williams-Sonoma once offered a breadmaker at $279, which sold OK. They introduced a bigger model at $429, and few sold…but sales of the $279 model nearly doubled. It’s also why restaurants will have an expensive bottle of wine at the top of the list, to make the next-highest priced seem more acceptable. The highest priced seems extravagant, and the lowest makes you wonder what you’re giving up.
Presentation of options: Henry Kissinger said he always presented Nixon with three alternatives; his favored one was always in the middle and was invariably the one selected. It’s also becoming much more common in presenting options online.
Negotiations: One example is when two sides in a negotiation reach an impasse. Often the stalemate is resolved by offering to split the difference. It “feels” fair, even though either side can determine the middle ground by making their own offer more extreme.
Goldilocks framing can be so powerful that it works even when one or both of the endpoints is highly implausible, such as when a restaurant puts a $100 hamburger on the menu. However, if you’re recommending a course of action, I think it’s important for your personal credibility that the presented options are at least plausible; otherwise the framing will seem like a transparent ploy.