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Imagine the following scenario: you’re walking on a retail store with hard tile flooring looking for a couch to your sitting room. After speeding through the other sections of the store you finally spotted the couches area, and there’s a model exactly as the one in our dreams right up front. It looks great, as the right color and size and it looks comfortable, just what you’ve wanted to buy.

Now imagine the same scene but with carpet flooring instead. How much do you think the change in the flooring will alter your opinion of the couch? It turns out that it can change it dramatically, according to a new study from the University of Minnesota. According to this study people tend to classify an object as more comfortable when they are treading in hard tile flooring than when they walk on carpet flooring:

In the study, published in the June 2010 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, authors Meyers-Levy and Juliet Zhu and Lan Jiang (University of British Columbia) explored the feelings evoked by the two most common flooring types in retail environments: hard vinyl tile and carpet. “When a person stands on carpeted flooring, it feels comforting,” says Meyers-Levy. “But the irony is that when people stand on carpet, they will judge products that are close to them as less comforting.”

What I think gets in play here is the relativity cognitive bias: the objects are not judged based on their sole characteristics, but based on how they measure up to the feeling of comfort the subjects were experiencing at the moment. A simple example that you can try at home to see relativity at work: place three bowls of water on a table. The left bowl should be filled with cold water; the right bowl with hot water and the middle one with the water at room temperature. Place your left hand in the cold water bowl and your right hand in the hot water one. Let them stay there for about a minute or so, and the put both hands at the same time on the bowl in the middle. How does it feel?

If you’ve done things correctly you should feel the water hot on your left hand and cold on your right, although the water is at the same temperature for both. While the temperature of the water in the middle bowl is the same for both hands, you and your body will judge water hotness or coldness in relation to the your previous situation. Thus, the water at room temperature will feel cold in comparison to the hot water and warm in comparison to the cold water.

Something of the sort seems to happen in this study. When the subjects where on hard tile flooring, the couches seemed, in comparison, more comfortable than when they were standing in an already comfortable platform. This happens because the baseline was quite different in both conditions. So, if you make a living selling couches, mattresses or chairs, you would be wise to cover the floor of your store with a slightly uncomfortable material so that your products may shine in comparison.

You can read more about the study here, and learn about relativity in Dan Ariely’s
Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.