Broken Dishes, Ice Cream & Your Work

What can a handful of papers on economics tell you about editing your portfolio? Quite a lot it turns out.

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by · Posted in: photography business

Beyond a certain level, the quality of a photograph is difficult to evaluate. Nevertheless, photographers are consistently put in positions where they depend on people such as photo editors and marketing professionals to evaluate their work. This might make you wonder how people assign value to something that is difficult to evaluate. You might reasonably expect them to understand the difficulty and find some means of accurately and objectively assigning value to your work. But a growing body of scientific literature suggests that this is not the case. When confronted with difficult judgments, people often ignore the aspects that are hard to evaluate and form a judgement based on easier attributes, even if those attributes are not really relevant to the value they are judging. And this all happens without anyone being aware of it.

An interesting example of this comes from Christopher Hsee's 1998 article 'Less is Better: When Low-value Options Are Valued More Highly than High-value Options' from the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making. Hsee describes a study in which two groups of people were asked how much they would pay for a serving of ice cream. One group was offered seven ounces of ice cream overflowing a five-ounce cup; the second group was given eight ounces in a ten-ounce cup. The first group was willing to pay on average $2.26 for their seven ounces of ice cream and the second was only willing to pay $1.66 despite the larger portion. Hsee's explanation is that when it comes to ice cream, cost per ounce is difficult for most people to evaluate. But most people have no trouble evaluating the relationship between cup size and contents. People substitute the easy heuristic of judging the relationship between container and contents without even knowing it and value the overflowing cup substantially higher.

An easy-to evaluate attribute, such as the overfilling or underfilling of a serving of ice cream, may have much greater impact on one's judgment than a hard-to-evaluate attribute, such as the actual amount of ice cream, even though any reasonable consumer would consider the latter to be more important.

When test subjects are offered both servings at the same time their preference reversed and they valued the under-filled cup higher because the relationship between seven ounces and eight ounces is now obvious and easy to evaluate.

Why should photographers care about this? Because we know that photography is difficult to evaluate, even for experts, and every time we present our work we also present a portfolio of attributes that are much easier to evaluate: our presentation, spelling, portfolio cover, website design, dress, etc. Hsee's study should make us very aware that when people are judging our work they may be using a heuristic based on attributes that we don't expect to be relevant — attributes that everyone would agree have nothing to do with the value of our work. And they may not even realize they are doing it.

In the same article Hsee describes a related study that compared two sets of dinnerware. One set contained 24 pieces all in good condition and the other contained the same 24 pieces in the same condition but also included 16 additional pieces of which nine where damaged. On average test subjects valued the smaller set at $32.68 and the larger set with broken pieces at $23.25 even though the larger set contained everything that the smaller set did and then some. The explanation is the same: it's difficult to appraise the value of a set of dinnerware on its own merits, but it requires no effort to understand that broken pieces devalue the collection. Subjects used the simpler attribute to arrive at a lower value for the objectively more valuable collection. The seller of the larger set would increase his profit by about 40% by throwing away the extra unmatched and broken pieces and offering the buyer less.

As a photographer this study should make you think long and hard about your portfolio and the work you present to clients. Photographers have always been advised to edit their work ruthlessly because poor work in a portfolio makes buyers wonder if they can consistently produce good results. This study goes further, however, and suggests that a couple broken dishes in your portfolio will bring down the entire value of your work including otherwise excellent photographs in the eyes of a buyer. This bias could be important to you even if you are only selling stock and not pursuing assignments. Less is better in ice cream, dinnerware, and probably photography. If you have a few broken dishes in your portfolio, you're better off throwing them away.