The Contrast Principle

The contrast principle plays a heavy role in your life; whether you give it credit or not—it's vital to understand how it works. It's the idea that slowly changing contrasts are difficult to notice, but fast changes seem shocking. The contrast principle is why we have the common phrase, "don't put a frog in boiling water." The idea is to put it in cool water that heats up and essentially tricks the frog into boiling to death, a prime example of how contrasts affect our relationship with our environment.  An incorrect tale, by the way. It's been investigated and tested.

The power of contrasts is real. It lulls you into accepting far worse conditions than you would (or should) because much of the circumstances you fall into are relative to the day (or few days) beforehand. We don't see things in their entirety. We see them as compared to yesterday. 

There are four characteristics to this mental model that are advantageous to understand:

  1. Slowly changing contrasts can be dangerous poisons because shifts happen slowly enough to crawl beneath our awareness. 
  2. Sudden and drastic changes will feel more dramatic than they truly are because the nature of such shifts consumes all our attention. 
  3. If you do two things in straight succession. The first activity and its outcome will have a strong influence over how you see the second activity. 
  4. In persuasion, slowly changing contrasts make people more willing, and big jumps in contrast will repel them. 

Imagine three buckets of water on a table in front of you. The first is filled with cool water, the second (and middle) filled with room temperature water, and the third with hot. If you dip your hand in the bucket of hot water, then move it into the bucket of room temperature water, the water will feel cool. However, if take your other hand and dip it in the cold bucket first, then place it in the middle bucket. The water will feel warm. This experiment reflects the core of the contrast principle—Our perception of experience gets distorted heavily by the experiences that came before it or after it.

Why Does it Matter to You? 

You can utilize contrast to benefit you or ignore it, but it will distort your perspective either way. If you do acknowledge it, there are many ways it can be advantageous: 

Challenging your environment

The water may be heating up in a few areas of your life but your current perspective is masking the change. However, asking (and genuinely answering) good questions has the power to uncover and reveal potential boiling points before they occur. Try these:

Accept The Discomfort of Change

The contrast principle plays a critical role in our decisions to change. Every time we commit to change in life, it will likely mean a shift in contrast from our older routines (bucket of warm water) to new ones (bucket of cold water). This will feel more drastic than it is, and we will favor the old routine that felt easy and comfortable. Even if the new path offers a fantastic opportunity, our intuition may side with the old because of this force. It's important to acknowledge this force behind significant changes but be sure to separate it from your decision. Your feelings toward change should have minimal impact on a final decision. After all, the new will rapidly become the old. 

Contrast Principle and Gratitude 

"A healthy man wants a thousand things, a sick man only wants one." - Confucius 

Today's tech leaves us highly susceptible to the darker forces behind contrast. We're constantly contrasting our lives against lavishly completed profiles, adventurous travel vlogs, and edited to perfection Instagram portraits. None of which uses this principle positively, but with awareness, we can reverse the effects.

This model provides a powerful tool for gratitude.

Instead of contrasting our lives against well-designed edits, we can choose to contrast our life against the less fortunate. At every given moment, there is 80-95% of the world living less fortunate than you. Yet you decide to compare yourself to the other 5%. Have you ever been sick with the stomach flu or even a terrible hangover? The only thing you wish for in that instance is a better sensation in the head and a better view than a toilet bowl. Have you ever been starving for days on end or feared for your families safety? The outcomes that we are satisfied with depend highly on what we are contrasting them against.

Final Notes

The contrast principle can improve decision-making in many ways, but it has to be acknowledged. It can also be used effectively to persuade, but it has to be understood. You will only gain the advantage of the contrast principle by investigating its effects on yourself and testing it in real world scenarios. The world is your playground! It's a powerful and fun mental model to add to your tool belt with many more applications than this post suggests so go out, and discover them. I'll leave you with one final example of it in use. 

Here's a letter Sharon wrote to her parents. 

Dear Mother and Dad :

Since I left for college, I have been remiss in writing and I am sorry for my thoughtlessness in not having written before. I will bring you up to date now, but before you read on, please sit down. You are not to read any further unless you are sitting down. Okay?

Well then, I am getting along pretty well now. The skull fracture and the concussion I got when I jumped out of the window of my dormitory when it caught fire shortly after my arrival here is pretty well healed now. I only spent two weeks in the hospital and now I can see almost normally and only get those sick headaches once a day. Fortunately, the fire in the dormitory, and my jump was witnessed by an attendant at the gas station near the dorm, and he was the one who called the Fire Department and the ambulance. He also visited me in the hospital and since I have nowhere to live because of the burned-out dormitory, he was kind enough to invite me to share his apartment with him. It's really a basement room, but it is kind of cute. He is a very fine man and we have fallen deeply in love and are planning on getting married. We haven't got the exact date yet, but it will be before my pregnancy begins to show. Yes mother and Dad, I am pregnant. I know how much you are looking forward to being grandparents and I know that you will welcome the baby and give it the same love and devotion and tender care you gave me when I was a child. The reason for the delay in our marriage is that my boyfriend has a minor infection which prevents us from passing our premarital blood tests and I carelessly caught it from him. I know that you will welcome him into our family with open arms. He is kind, and, although not well educated, he is ambitious. Although he is of a different race and religion than ours, I know your often-expressed tolerance will not permit you to be bothered by that.

Now that I have brought you up to date, I want to tell you that there was no dormitory fire, I did not have a concussion or skull fracture, I was not in the hospital, I am not pregnant, I am not engaged, I am not infected, and there is no boyfriend in my life. However, I am getting an "F" in General Biology and I want you to see this failing grade in its proper perspective.

Your loving daughter,


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