Brain Games and Blue Jeans

By / Corporate Storytelling

My son recently became obsessed with the television show “Brian Games.” Last night we watched “S2, E9: You Decide.” Near the end, you will watch a study run by Psychologist Dan Goldstein from Columbia University. In it, they show five pairs of jeans to a focus group and have them rate each pair.

Some pairs are favored more than others and each person gives reasons for their decisions. For instance, one of them says how one pair is “thicker than the others” and another says how two pairs feel “cheaper than the rest.”

What’s interesting about this experiment? All the jeans are the same!

Which pair do you like best?

What does that tell us about the decision-making process? Based on this experiment, people can perceive a difference where there is none. That tells us that differentiation doesn’t happen on the drawing board or in your office. Differentiation happens in the mind of the audience. What’s even trickier is that its not always based on logic.

Think about this in the context of your job. There are times when you need people to make a decision. Perhaps you need management to agree with your recommendation or maybe you need a customer to accept your proposal. That decision is going to be based on perceived differences in their mind. They are going to compare your idea to the status quo or a competitor. What are you doing to influence that perceived difference?

Dr. Daylian Cain, who studies judgment and decision-making and behavioral business ethics at Yale, points out the following:

“This experiment reveals we are largely unaware of the reasons for why we choose what we choose. In fact, the reasons might be uninteresting. Perhaps… we just randomly chose (one pair of jeans) but that’s not a satisfying explanation so we come up with one.”


Wait! What? We are just making up reasons?

Is your audience making up reasons for their decisions?

If you don’t give them a differentiator to help them make the decision, they will make one up.

Have you ever had a customer tell you, “You lost because you were more expensive?” It might not have been entirely about money. It might have been because they didn’t find an acceptable set of differentiators to help them decide. Therefore, they went with a difference that was tangible and easy to explain: cost.

Don’t let that happen to you. Spend time identifying those key differentiators that can help them make the decision on something other than just cost. So, what makes a differentiator effective?

It must be:

  • Different (duh)
  • Beneficial (to them, not you)
  • Provable (Is that a word? Yes!)
  • Tangible

At Articulus, we create Corporate Storytellers. Corporate Storytellers are all about helping people make decisions. If you want an easier decision for your audience, be strategic and explicit with your differentiators. Guide them to the right decision, don’t hope they perceive the differences that favor you. In other words, avoid the blue jeans situation.

To read more, check out our other articles on this site.


Brian O’Keefe is a Corporate Storyteller at Articulus LLC. He can help you get to the point and help your audience make a decision. He coaches leaders, sales people, engineers, etc. how to get to the heart of their message and be persuasive (not just informative).

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