Organizational Behaviour

Contrast Effect – Learning about our own biases

Beware of your own biases.  Today I was marking the last batch of exams for this semester when I noticed a particularly interesting outcome.  If I had a particularly bad, or particularly good exam, the next exam I marked was victim to an effect known as “contrast effect”.  That is, if an exam was particularly good, it impacted my perception of the next exam, perhaps making it look worse than it really was.  This lead to an exaggeration of the differences between papers. The reverse also happened.  If I marked a particularly bad paper, the next one seemed so much better by comparison that I gave the next student a better grade than they deserved.  Needless to say, I had to go back to the papers and recalibrate the grades to ensure that I was really comparing apples to apples.

So what does this have to do with the real world?  Contrast effects have a significant impact on interviewing and performance evaluation.  How should organizations address contrast effect?  Standardizing evaluations, use consistent measures to evaluate people, and structured interviews have all been shown to reduce contrast effect.  In general, when we are aware of our tendencies to bias, we also reduce the likelihood of bias.  Moral of the story.  Developing self-awareness, of our emotions and of our biases help us to be more effective in the workplace, and to provide more consistent and fair evaluations.

Want to manage the contrast effect?  Go to my post managing the contrast effect in job interviews.


2 replies »

  1. You know I got to thinking that the “Contrast Effect” has even more sinister applications…in life.
    Jobs…”well at least it’s a pay cheque….”
    There is always the tempation to settle for less based on recent experience.
    I’m impressed you recognized that and reviewed your assessments.
    Among other things it takes energy, principles and courage.

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