The Accuracy of Less: Natural Bounds Explain Why Quantity Decreases Are Estimated More Accurately Than Quantity Increases

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Abstract

Five studies show that people, including experts such as professional chefs, estimate quantity decreases more accurately than quantity increases. We argue that this asymmetry occurs because physical quantities cannot be negative. Consequently, there is a natural lower bound (zero) when estimating decreasing quantities but no upper bound when estimating increasing quantities, which can theoretically grow to infinity. As a result, the “accuracy of less” disappears (a) when a numerical or a natural upper bound is present when estimating quantity increases, or (b) when people are asked to estimate the (unbounded) ratio of change from 1 size to another for both increasing and decreasing quantities. Ruling out explanations related to loss aversion, symbolic number mapping, and the visual arrangement of the stimuli, we show that the “accuracy of less” influences choice and demonstrate its robustness in a meta-analysis that includes previously published results. Finally, we discuss how the “accuracy of less” may explain asymmetric reactions to the supersizing and downsizing of food portions, some instances of the endowment effect, and asymmetries in the perception of increases and decreases in physical and psychological distance.

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