The Principle of Contrast: Persuasion, Color Theory, Weight Loss, and More
Mastering contrast is a superpower.
Contrast is everywhere around us:
Contrasting your product against a competitor’s
Contrasting colors in an infographic or presentation
Contrasting your policies against your opponent’s
Contrasting your skills on a resume against other candidates
Contrast is about the art of comparison. Humans are hardwired to look for differences between things.
Makes sense when you think about it, right? We’re descended from people whose survival depended on making accurate distinctions:
The distinction between a friendly smile vs. murderous intent
The distinction between a harmless sound in the woods vs. a predator lying in ambush
The distinction between a beneficial plant vs. a poisonous plant
The distinction between a weak prey (leading to a successful hunt) vs. a strong prey that escapes
The distinction between a safe route to travel vs. a dangerous one
The drive to distinguish between things is baked into our genes. However, I see at least two major challenges in today’s world when it comes to contrast:
Spotting contrast doesn’t mean you’re good at creating contrast
The complexity of the modern world is making it very hard to tell the difference between things
Understanding contrast is a subtle tactic that can significantly increase your persuasiveness, your effectiveness, and even your happiness.
Let’s look at a few examples.
Colors are an excellent example of contrast at play.
Notice how the Yellow/Blue and Green/Pink combinations really pop, whereas the Red/Orange and Blue/Blue combinations are muted by comparison.
The best way to understand this dynamic is to see it in action. Here a few examples from the website Visme:
Notice how each of these websites uses contrast differently to manipulate your attention. Color is a powerful way to create artificial differences between objects and is a common tactic for directing an observer’s focus.
Contrast doesn’t just have to be created through color, however. It can come in a variety of forms:
Notice how quickly your eyes move to the contrasting element in each grouping.
In the world of sales, it is very common to present a high-priced item to the customer first, then a lower-priced option is shown. The high-priced item makes the lower-priced item look more affordable by comparison.
This technique is also related to the “rejection-then-retreat” tactic as popularized in Robert Cialdini’s book Influence. Bill Watterson captures this dynamic beautifully in his classic Calvin & Hobbes comic strip:
Another term that you might be familiar with from the world of sales/persuasion is “reframing”. Reframing is when you change the way you perceive a situation, even though the situation itself hasn’t changed.
Sometimes this is referred to as “finding the silver lining” or “thinking positively”, but what’s really happening is you are changing the reference point. In other words, you are comparing the situation against a different reference object. This is just another way of saying you’ve changed the contrast.
People love before-and-after pictures - the Internet is packed full of them.
Part of the reason we love them is that before-and-after pictures are an excellent example of contrast. They allow us to viscerally experience the transformation.
I love this photo series because it shows the power of contrast. But do you know what’s really great about it?
This photo series wasn’t taken 6 months apart.
It was taken 3.5 hours apart.
Don’t believe me? Click on the link to the photo where the author, Luke DePron, explains how he did it.
Contrast is fun.
Here’s another great example of a lady, Joanne Encarnacion, who significantly improved her health:
What I like about this photo series is that it screws with your perception. Most people would look at it and say, “Oh, she gained some weight back in the last picture, so I guess she failed”.
But what they would be missing is (a) Joanne wasn’t healthy in the middle picture, and (b) if you compare the last photo to the first photo, then she looks fantastic.
In Joanne’s own words:
Fitness doesn’t have to be one thing. My goals aren’t to get more and more defined or lose weight; I want to be fitter and happier as a whole. I’ve learned I can’t evaluate fitness using someone else’s definition of health. And you can’t evaluate someone’s health by looking at a photo, either. No one’s opinion about my body matters besides mine. I lost sight of what’s important: It’s not how I look. It’s how I feel.
Contrast, contrast, contrast.
I’m not the most attractive dude in the world, but I can generally visit a grocery store without eliciting shocked cries of horror from my fellow shoppers. But if you were to put me next to this guy, what do you think would happen?
While beauty is often an important proxy for health, it is also true that beauty is an issue of comparison (i.e. contrast).
A few takeaways you could draw from this:
Only stand next to people who are less attractive to you - it will increase your attractiveness in comparison
More seriously, remember Joanne’s words from the last section. Ensure that your standard for comparison is realistic.
Regardless of where you start, you can improve. You might be shocked how much a few simple changes to your wardrobe and personal grooming can significantly change the way others perceive you (and how you perceive yourself). I’ve mentioned elsewhere how reading a men’s style book totally changed my perception of fashion (for the better!).
As someone who works in the recruiting/staffing industry, I can say with confidence that contrast is a significant factor in whether you get a call-back from a recruiter or hiring manager.
Contrast takes a lot of forms on a resume, ranging from physical contrasts (font size, text layout, color) to psychological contrasts (e.g. the order in which points are presented). Here’s an example of what I mean (click on the link below the picture to see the two resumes full-screen):
Here’s another example of a good resume (click on the link below the picture to see it on the original website):
Remember, the art of contrast is really the art of comparison. A hiring manager is comparing your resume against a job description (whether mentally or physically) to determine how you stack up. Therefore, your resume needs to help the hiring manager make that comparison as easily as possible. If you can create the right contrast between you and the rest of the candidates, then the job will be yours.
Once you begin thinking of the world in terms of contrast, you’ll start to see it everywhere. From relationships to persuasion to advertising to politics and beyond, contrast is an underlying principle that governs our lives.
The first step to mastering contrast is to simply become aware of it. Pay attention to situations that grab your attention. What is it about the environment that stood out to you? Color, sound, reference point, physicality, psychology?
Another useful step is to begin priming your mind to see contrast. Watch a few YouTube videos on color theory, fashion, website design, or home renovation. You might be surprised how many professions draw upon the same principles.
The second step is to start questioning contrast decisions. For example, if you are reading an article and something about the format stands out to you, ask yourself, “How would I create contrast in this situation? Could I improve it? How would I do it differently?” Taking ownership is how you begin to develop the skills for the third (and final) step.
The final step is to begin consciously employing contrast in your life. Experiment with different outfits; add some color to your next PowerPoint presentation; restructure your resume; take a class on color theory; reframe your fitness journey; introduce yourself to people in a different way. The options are endless!