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Don’t Say “It’s Usually Better”

Don’t Say “It’s Usually Better”

Thomas McKinlay

When presenting a product, don’t add comments such as “it usually looks nicer,” “it looks even better when…” They backfire. For example, people were 24% less likely to buy an indoor plant.

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Saying “it’s usually better” backfires and hurts your sales

Channels: Messaging | Sales | Marketing communications
For: Both B2C and B2B
Research date: June 2022

📝 Intro

Imagine you are a real estate agent showing a house to a potential buyer. The view is usually beautiful. Unfortunately, during today’s viewing it’s foggy outside.

Should you simply say “Look at this view!”?

Or should you also add “Sadly it’s foggy today, usually the view is even better!”?


Let’s take another example. You are about to give a presentation. But your laptop is having an issue and your slides look a bit blurry.

Should you say “Sorry my slides look a bit blurry today*. I’m having an issue with my laptop, usually they look better”? 

Or should you stay quiet?

In both cases the research is clear: Hold your tongue and keep it to yourself.

P.S.: *Did you catch the double mistake here? Perhaps the presenter should have said “thank you for your patience” instead of “sorry.”

📈 Recommendation

Don’t point out “it’s usually better” when presenting or selling something.

For example, instead of saying “it looks better under a better light” or “sorry my voice is usually clearer, I’m sick today,” don’t say anything and pretend the imperfection is not there.

By pointing out a small imperfection you get people to notice it when they probably wouldn’t have.

People’s impressions will worsen. They will be less satisfied and less likely to buy your product.

🎓 Findings

  • When something (e.g., product, gift, situation) is temporarily not in its ideal condition (e.g., not perfectly clean, slower than usual), people tend to point that out. For example, “The city is very busy today, usually it’s nicer.” Their intention is to improve the receivers’ impression. 
  • This study found that, in reality, pointing out the problem backfires. People’s impressions worsen and they are less likely to buy.
  • For example, as part of a series of 12 experiments, people were asked to imagine different scenarios and give their choices:
    • Customers were 24% less likely to buy a slightly withered plant when told “the plant looks a bit withered now due to insufficient sunlight [it would usually look better].”
    • Gift receivers were 8.3% less happy when told the dog they got as a gift was usually more friendly when not sick. They were also less grateful.
    • Diners gave a 14.6% lower Yelp rating and tipped 15.3% less when, at the end of their meal, the owner of the restaurant told them that their dish would have been even better when the crab they had was in season.
  • The effect weakens or reverses when the imperfection is obvious. For example, a presenter’s apology for the quality of their very blurry slides is good—but it backfires if the slides are only slightly blurry.

🧠 Why it works

  • When we’re presenting something we know well, we have a clear mental image of what it’s like in its ideal state. 
  • From our perspective, the imperfections in its current state are obvious because we think in a “comparison mode,” while the receiver sees it without any comparison. 
  • Due to the curse of knowledge, we struggle to see it from their perspective of no comparison, which is probably not that bad.
  • The receiver might not even have noticed the “temporarily imperfect” feature or detail. Even if they did, they might not give it much importance.
  • But when we point out the problem, we focus the receiver’s attention on it, and they start thinking of the negative aspects of the object.

If you want to know about the study’s limitations, the companies using it, and the steps to implement it, you can continue reading this summary on Ariyh. For more summaries like this, you can subscribe to Ariyh here.

📖 Research

‘It Could Be Better’ Can Make It Worse: When and Why People Mistakenly Communicate Upward Counterfactual Information,” Journal of Marketing Research (June 2022).

🏫 Researchers

  • Xilin Li, China Europe International Business School (CEIBS)
  • Christopher K. Hsee, Booth School of Business, University of Chicago
  • Ed O’Brien, Booth School of Business, University of Chicago

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