Small Differences That Matter


Amanda Pallais, an Assistant Professor of Economics and Social Studies at Harvard University, recently published a fascinating article that highlighted the potentially powerful impact of a relatively minor change.

Pallais examined the effect of what happened when the ACT increased from three to four the number of free score reports that ACT-takers could send to colleges. Prior to the change, the cost of sending a fourth score report to a college was $6.

Data showed that after the change, 80% of low-income high-school students in the U.S. sent scores to additional colleges, some of which were highly selective. Because some of the students were accepted by these colleges, Pallais estimated that the small discount had a powerful effect on the students’ economic prospects: On average, sending an additional score report increased a low-income student’s expected future earnings by more than $10,000!

Reading that article made me think about other small changes that could potentially have a big impact.

One often used example is the effect of increasing the temperature of water by one degree, from 99 degrees Celsius to 100 degrees (or from 211 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit). That one degree change allows water to be converted to steam, which can then be used to provide power. There is even a book titled “212 the extra degree“, as well as a short inspirational video to accompany the book.

Another example is the value of getting just a bit faster in many athletic contests. Often the difference between first and second place is a tenth of a second or less, which could potentially mean the difference between fame and fortune. In the 2008 Olympics, Michael Phelps kept his dream alive for winning eight gold medals when he won the 100 meter butterfly by a hundredth of a second. Phelps became a world-wide celebrity, with endorsements in the millions. The second place finisher, Milorad Cavic, while certainly an accomplished world-class swimmer, became an interesting footnote in the history books.

And then there are all the little things we could do or changes we could make on a daily basis that could potentially have a major impact:

  • adding an additional piece of fruit or vegetable serving to our daily food intake
  • taking the stairs instead of the elevator
  • reading a few extra pages a day, for pleasure or for insight
  • offering someone congratulations for a recent accomplishment
  • buying a cup of lemonade from the neighborhood kids’ stand
  • telling someone you love them

While any one of those items on the list may not seem like much, they could be the spark, that extra degree that is needed to make a difference, either for you or someone else.



2 thoughts on “Small Differences That Matter

  1. Jim, I was thinking about blogging about the very same thing, only it related mostly to time and not other incremental changes. Your post is so much better than what I had planned!

    Love this. (And I will probably link to it when I finally get mime written.)

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