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The benefit of (sometimes) disappointing your customers

04 Jul 2019  |  William Hanmer-Lloyd 
The benefit of (sometimes) disappointing your customers

Behavioural science shows us that we become more addicted to something when a good outcome isn’t guaranteed. Marketers, take note.

Many people love watching sport and supporting a team. It creates a sense of identity, social bonding, not forgetting an excuse to start drinking at 1pm on a Saturday.

But part of what draws us towards watching sport, and makes us so invested, is the fact that the result can be worse than expected. This is because we enjoy the win far more if we have also experienced unexpected losses.

If a sport was consistent, then we would become bored of it. Arsenal fans are a great example of a group that got bored of always finishing in the top four and then getting knocked out in the last 16 of the Champions League. Consistent moderate success became dull. Finishing sixth last season reinjects some excitement into the game, as Arsenal fans will enjoy getting back into the top four. The variable nature of the reward will be better, even if it involves more finishes outside the top four.

This is explained by the powerful cognitive influence on our behaviour, first spotted by a behaviourist called B.F. Skinner. He found that mice became less compulsively addicted to pulling a lever if they received a treat every time they pulled it. When it was set up so that the lever sometimes gave a treat and sometimes didn’t, then the mice became far more compulsively addicted.

We are addicted to the stress of losing, not the victory"

And what is true for mice has held true for us. As humans we become more addicted when a good outcome isn’t guaranteed. In fact, we are most likely to get addicted or engrossed when the chance of success is only 50%.

Contrary to popular belief, the dopamine in our brain isn’t just designed to reward our behaviour with feelings of pleasure, it is actually designed to drive our behaviour towards intended outcomes. It does this by stimulating a semi-stressful response, which humans inherently desire. This is shown by the fact that we are never more focused then when watching our team defend a 1-0 lead in the final 10 minutes. We are addicted to the stress, not the victory.

This addiction to stress is what actually drives human behaviour, ensuring we captured more food and found more or better mates, rather than sitting back and enjoying our last success.

The potential for a bad experience makes Facebook more addictive"

It’s a cognitive quirk that impacts a huge number of areas in our life. The reason social media is so addictive and prevalent is because sometimes when we use it, we have a negative experience. When we open Facebook we see our ex happy with a new partner or our peers living more successful or happy lives. And it makes us feel bad. This potential for a bad experience makes Facebook more addictive. Mobile games, dating apps, newspapers all benefit from this. They are more addictive because the experience is sometimes bad.

This cognitive aspect of human behaviour can be used by companies and brands when developing products, loyalty schemes, or even trying to get their employees to fill in their time sheets.

Companies developing new products or start-ups should consider the key role variable reward can play in making a new product or service more successful. Obviously there are areas where consistency is good. No one wants a hoover that occasionally doesn’t pick up dirt or a car that occasionally doesn’t start. But if your product has a social, playful or reward based element to it, then consider testing if occasional negative consumer experiences could positively impact consumers demand.

Loyalty schemes often offer clear regular end of year bonuses, consistent in their dullness and limited attraction. But subscription services could offer variable awards, that are occasionally surprisingly good, and occasionally very disappointing. Member schemes could also offer a more variable reward to encourage people to get more new customers.

People quickly become bored of a regular £50/bottle of wine/free bet. But if the reward was variable then they would be far more likely to become driven to get more new customers, because they would become addicted to the stress of the variable reward.

Finally, this approach can be applied practically. For example, many companies want its employees to fill in their time sheets on time and struggle to get them to it. They should consider bringing in variable rewards, rather than offer a consistent carrot and stick approach.


William Hanmer-Lloyd is Total Media's head of behavioural planning

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11 Nov 2019 

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