In this week’s Ask Dan column, Dan answers a reader’s question about a phenomenon known as the perfection premium.
Every time my sister hosts a dinner party, she insists that every last tidbit of food she serves be homemade. This high standard is wearing on her. To make her life easier, I proposed buying a few items, but she balked at the idea. Why is she so invested in making everything from scratch, despite the stress? —Roxanne
And here is Dan’s response:
Your sister might be experiencing a “perfection premium,” which is the tendency to overrate something because it is perfect—and in her case, 100% homemade.
The perfection premium was demonstrated in a study about socks. Researchers asked some people how much more they would pay for socks that were 100% Merino wool compared with socks that were 98% Merino wool. They asked others about their willingness to pay for socks that were 96% Merino wool compared with socks that were 94% Merino. In both cases, the question was about the value they placed on an additional 2% wool—but in the first case, that 2% made the socks a perfect 100% wool, while in the second case, it was just an increase of 2% more Merino wool. The participants were willing to pay much more for the 2% increase when it brought the total to a perfect 100% compared with when it was just a 2% increase.
These findings show that people place a premium on perfection, perhaps because we put things that are perfect in a different mental category than those that are near-perfect. For your sister, making 95% of a meal from scratch rather than 100% may have the benefit of saving time, but it would cost her the loss of the perfection premium. With this in mind, instead of interfering with her pride in a perfectly home-cooked meal, you could try to work with it—for example, by suggesting that she purchase desserts from a baker at a local farmers market. These items aren’t technically ‘homemade,” but you might be able to help her think about them as such.
In the same research study that involved the socks, research participants were asked to evaluate the results from a standardized test (the ACT, in which a perfect score is 36). In this scenario, the difference in perceived ability between a student who earns a perfect score of 36 and a near-perfect score of 35 is much greater than the difference between students whose scores are 35 versus 34. In both cases, the difference is only one point, but a premium is given to the student who scored the perfect score of 36.
I just think there is a mystique associated with perfection.
There are a couple of sports analogies that might be relevant:
- I would guess that most people would evaluate the difference between pitching a perfect game in baseball vs allowing just one hit as being much greater than the difference between allowing one hit versus two hits. Baseball keeps track of perfect games; there is something magical about them.
- In bowling, a perfect score is 300. Comparing a 300 to 299 may result in a large perceived difference since one of the games was perfect. But the difference between a 299 and a 298 might not seem to be significant. Again, a 300 is a special event. A 299 is not quite there.
This may also apply to my blogging, and to my advantage.
Since I never aim for perfection with my blog posts, e.g. having no grammatical errors or typos (mainly because I know it will never happen), I assume readers don’t perceive much, if any, difference between having just one or two errors versus having a half-dozen or more errors. This makes life much easier for me, I don’t have to exert the extra effort to try and be close to perfect because no one would notice anyway.
And it seems like my approach is supported by some big names, as indicated by this quote I found on reddit:
- Voltaire: “The best is the enemy of the good.”
- Confucius: “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.”
- Shakespeare: “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.”
Who am I to argue with these guys?
P.S. And yes, apparently I just compared my blog to a diamond…