Further Information on Further Information

You go to a casino. You find an open table. You pick up the six-sided die. Before placing a bet, you consider which will give you better odds: rolling an even number, or rolling a two, four, or six? Statistically the same, of course, but we perceive these odds differently.

February 17, 2014

When determining the probability that something will take place, research and experimentation have historically shown that people consider events more likely in the company of more information. We will give “a batter reaches first base” higher likelihood if told “a batter reaches first base by getting a hit, walking, or getting hit by a pitch.” This provision of detail, known as unpacking, explicitly reminds us of the many possible paths to a single outcome. Recent work by Shane Frederick at Yale and Joseph Redden at the University of Minnesota, however, demonstrates that unpacking can also have the opposite effect.

In their research, Redden and Frederick conducted six experiments to test the relationship between unpacking and perceived likelihood. In every case, the unpacked event was considered less likely to occur than the packed event. One of the most striking examples offered participants the choice between receiving a sure $15 and taking one of two randomly assigned rolls of the die:

  1. Win $50 if you get an even number
  2. Win $50 if you get a 2, 4, or 6

Participants were asked to rate their preference on a scale from 0 (strongly prefer the sure thing) to 100 (strongly prefer the gamble). Interestingly, though the two gambles are identical, participants were more willing to shoot for the $50 when presented with the packed gamble (even number) than the unpacked gamble (2, 4, or 6).

In the case of rolling a die, the authors argue, additional detail generates complexity that, in turn, can create “a negative cue for likelihood.” These findings create an interesting tension with the idea of unpacking and deserve consideration across a number of industries. In the case of healthcare, elaborating the benefits of a medical treatment in great detail may actually reduce patient confidence in the procedure. Or elaborate disclaimers spelling out pharmaceutical side effects, though required by the FDA, may make consumers inclined to downplay the likelihood of their occurrence. Ultimately, Frederick and Redden posit “that any manipulation that increases the apparent complexity of an event will typically reduce its believability”—an important effect to keep in mind when detailing the costs or benefits of a product or service.