Why putting the other guy down works

I’m a big fan of selling yourself instead of putting the other guy down. I agree with Seth Godin:

John Kerry called George Bush dumb, but it didn’t matter, because
Bush’s base didn’t care that Kerry thought he was dumb. The people who
did care had already decided not to vote for Bush, so the story had no
power.

So I was wondering why people spend so much energy putting the other guy down instead of talking themselves up. One of the reasons I think people bash their opponents is a concept that I learned in Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely.

If you have two products, A and B, that are very different, it’s hard to compare them. In his example, he uses a colonial house and a ranch house. People have a hard time choosing between them and the split will probably be 50/50 for the colonial or the ranch. (Assuming they’re pretty similar in price, size, location, etc.) However, imagine you introduce A’, a colonial house that needs a new roof. Most people will now pick the colonial house that doesn’t need a new roof over the ranch house. Now they have something to compare it to (the colonial house that needs a roof) and it’s obviously better. The ranch is not obviously better even though it might be just as good.

Predictablyirrational

Picture from Predictably Irrational, page 9.

(By the way, he recommends that if you are barhopping and looking for a date, you should take someone who looks a lot like you but is not quite as attractive.)

So I think that’s one of the reasons why politicians put their opponents down. They are trying to give you something to compare against so that you’ll pick the better one (with regards to that feature.)

Now you can imagine how this compares to products. He gave an example of bread machine company introducing a new model just so that people had something to compare the existing model to. Sales went up because they had two models of bread machines and so now they could compare them, not because the new model was what people wanted.

So maybe that’s part of the reason people bash political opponents, rich people, and other operating systems.