We are independent & ad-supported. We may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.
Advertiser Disclosure
Our website is an independent, advertising-supported platform. We provide our content free of charge to our readers, and to keep it that way, we rely on revenue generated through advertisements and affiliate partnerships. This means that when you click on certain links on our site and make a purchase, we may earn a commission. Learn more.
How We Make Money
We sustain our operations through affiliate commissions and advertising. If you click on an affiliate link and make a purchase, we may receive a commission from the merchant at no additional cost to you. We also display advertisements on our website, which help generate revenue to support our work and keep our content free for readers. Our editorial team operates independently of our advertising and affiliate partnerships to ensure that our content remains unbiased and focused on providing you with the best information and recommendations based on thorough research and honest evaluations. To remain transparent, we’ve provided a list of our current affiliate partners here.

What is a Contrast Effect?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
Our promise to you
The Health Board is dedicated to creating trustworthy, high-quality content that always prioritizes transparency, integrity, and inclusivity above all else. Our ensure that our content creation and review process includes rigorous fact-checking, evidence-based, and continual updates to ensure accuracy and reliability.

Our Promise to you

Founded in 2002, our company has been a trusted resource for readers seeking informative and engaging content. Our dedication to quality remains unwavering—and will never change. We follow a strict editorial policy, ensuring that our content is authored by highly qualified professionals and edited by subject matter experts. This guarantees that everything we publish is objective, accurate, and trustworthy.

Over the years, we've refined our approach to cover a wide range of topics, providing readers with reliable and practical advice to enhance their knowledge and skills. That's why millions of readers turn to us each year. Join us in celebrating the joy of learning, guided by standards you can trust.

Editorial Standards

At The Health Board, we are committed to creating content that you can trust. Our editorial process is designed to ensure that every piece of content we publish is accurate, reliable, and informative.

Our team of experienced writers and editors follows a strict set of guidelines to ensure the highest quality content. We conduct thorough research, fact-check all information, and rely on credible sources to back up our claims. Our content is reviewed by subject-matter experts to ensure accuracy and clarity.

We believe in transparency and maintain editorial independence from our advertisers. Our team does not receive direct compensation from advertisers, allowing us to create unbiased content that prioritizes your interests.

The contrast effect is a phenomenon where people perceive greater or lesser differences than are actually present as a result of prior or simultaneous exposure to something with similar base characteristics, but different key qualities. In a simple example of how the contrast effect works with vision, a researcher can present a subject with a dark square and a light square, each enclosing a smaller square. Even if the smaller squares are actually the same color, the contrast effect will lead the viewer to think the square against the dark background is lighter than the one against the light background.

Visual perception is not the only thing the contrast effect can skew. This can also occur with human cognition, in an example of a cognitive bias. A teaching assistant might grade a mediocre essay more harshly after reading a very good writing sample, for example. People can utilize this effect in sales. A coffin salesperson can show people the same medium-range coffin in the midst of low-end products and high-end products, and they will perceive it differently depending on the surrounding comparison samples. This may encourage people to spend more than they would otherwise.

In the positive contrast effect, people will perceive something as better than it is as a result of exposure to a worse comparison sample, while in the negative version, people will think something is worse because they have a better comparison sample. This cognitive bias is extremely difficult to overcome, as it is naturally engrained in the brain and the way people think about and perceive the world around them.

Awareness of the contrast effect can lead people to try and take steps to compensate for it. In grading, for instance, people have a rubric they can use to create a more objective standard, and a teaching assistant may take a random sample of papers with various grades and ask another assistant to look them over and make sure the grades are fair. Concerns about visual contrast are especially important with signs and graphic design, where colors can appear abnormal depending on their surroundings and how people handle them.

Like other cognitive biases, the contrast effect can explain some seemingly contradictory human behaviors, and it is an important part of human psychology. People may engage in activities against their own best interests as a result of these biases, and could also do things that seem out of character, like spending more on a purchase than originally planned because of clever sales tactics exploiting known psychological vulnerabilities.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By umbra21 — On Jan 27, 2013

I really love those eye tricks where they do things like this. There are a lot of very good sites online where you can find them.

I've also heard you can use this trick to help you eat less. If you put food on a smaller plate, it looks like there is more food by comparison and you actually feel fuller after eating it. If you put the same amount of food on a huge plate and you can see all the empty plate there, it looks like less food and you won't feel as full after.

By Fa5t3r — On Jan 27, 2013

@croydon - It's not all bad though. You can use that kind of contrast effect to get people to work harder. For example, I'm a writer and I try to make sure that if I'm editing my own work, that I'm also reading a book that I consider to be very good.

It tends to make me harder on my own work, which is really good. If I was reading something light and fluffy, I might see my work as better in comparison and not be so hard on it. And my work would ultimately suffer.

By croydon — On Jan 26, 2013

This kind of cognitive bias is so important to watch for in teaching, particularly, because it can lead to kids being treated unfairly and in a way that leads them to do worse and worse in their grades. It's a well documented fact that if a teacher thinks a child isn't smart, the child's grades gradually get worse to reflect this belief (and the opposite is also true).

So, if you've got a teacher who is comparing the whole class to a few bright students, they are all going to suffer.

As long as the teacher is aware that this is a possibility and tries to adjust for it, the kids will be OK.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Learn more
The Health Board, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.

The Health Board, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.