OPINION18 May 2016

It’s the little things that count

Behavioural science Opinion UK

We expect ‘intense’ psychological states to have more persistent effects than ‘mild’ ones In fact, the reverse is true and this could have implications for how brands handle their relationships. By Alex McCluckie

Road rage crop

Picture the scene: it’s a normal night in Manchester (glib and rainy, naturally) as I make my way home after a long but productive day at work. I hit the motorway and out of nowhere another driver cuts lanes mere inches from my bumper without indicating.

After a quick surge of adrenalin and a little swearing, I quickly settle back into cruise mode. A short distance later I’ve pretty much forgotten the whole episode and decide to pull over for a quick snack stop. I find myself waiting at the till. 15 minutes later and I’m still waiting. Hang on, not waiting, fuming! How can it be this slow?

I finally get out of there and arrive back home, and I’m still incensed. In fact, I was just as riled by this minor episode the following day when I was back on the same road making my way in for the new day. Now calmer, reflecting on this episode I was struck by a question; how can two events – one a near life and death experience and one insignificant and mundane produce such forgettable and persistent reactions?

As it turns out there is a rather interesting explanation – and one that may have something to teach us about customer experience. A series of mini-studies from the US suggests that intense states may themselves trigger psychological processes that are designed to diminish them. As a result, this unconscious process means that intense states (i.e. the feeling created by nearly getting driven off the road) may subside much quicker than their milder counterparts (i.e. the feeling created by having to queue for long periods of time).

Because this process is subconscious, people can expect intense states to last longer than mild ones. When tested, however, the truth seems to be anything but and this may have ramifications for how brands handle their customer relationships.

According to the research, headed by Dan Gilbert, by asking participants to estimate the intensity of their feelings towards a number of transgressions (such as asking someone on a date but getting turned down, or hearing that their best friend had a romantic encounter with their former flame) both at the moment it happened and one week later, they were able to see a clear expectation amongst participants that their feelings at the time of the transgression would prove to be a “powerful predictor of their feelings a week later”.

The researchers also took this one step further in order to test whether the psychological processes that temper distress are activated only when the distress itself exceeds a certain threshold. To do this they conducted another study. This time, participants rated their emotional state prior to writing an autobiographical story that someone else would then rate and use to assess their personality type. Crucially however, some participants were told that they would then meet their assessor (partner condition) and some were told that their assessor would remain anonymous (non-partner condition).

Participants were eventually given their assessment indicating that their assessor had rated them with ‘relatively high confidence’ as the worst of three personality types. Upon reading this assessment, participants then measured their emotional state again. As predicted, participants experienced a greater change in their emotional state when insulted by someone they were going to meet (partner condition) than when insulted by a non-partner.

The suggestion here was that because people trust others with whom they are going to interact to make special efforts to be nice, participants initially disliked their insulting ‘partner’ more than their insulting ‘non-partner’.

Additionally, the researchers investigated how participants’ more intense dislike of a partner was expected to last longer than their less intense dislike of a non-partner. Interestingly however, when measured five minutes after being insulted, the opposite was actually the case; the greater emotionally active situation was diffused quicker than the initially lesser experience – something the authors argue is due to these subconscious attenuating processes.

So if really bad experiences can be alleviated quicker and lesser, more mundane experiences tend to linger, what does this mean for customer experience? Well, as we all know, good and bad experiences can come in different sizes: from unsatisfactory exchanges with a customer services department to finding out your beef burgers have been made of horse for the last few months.

With these findings in mind, the question is, are brands sometimes guilty of prioritising their resources towards ‘the bigger’ PR issues at the complete expense of the everyday interactions that consumers seek?

A recent Twitter mystery shop evaluated different brands on several measures, such as response rate, speed and quality of response and found there to be a chasm between those brands that prioritise consumer interactions and those who take a more ‘relaxed’ stance to connecting with their customers.

Indeed, while some brands responded to at least 90% of queries, certain brands chose not to reply to a single tweet! These more ‘relaxed’ brands may be taking this laid back approach due to this subconscious expectation that the ‘lesser’ inconveniences experienced by customers (i.e. not receiving a reply) will subside and be forgotten about quickly, leaving them to tackle what they perceive to be bigger, more important issues.

But as we now know, this may be a mistake that is merely masking a slow burning consumer frustration that lingers because it isn’t activating the ‘threshold’ needed to trigger the psychological processes that can attenuate this frustration.

In this counter-intuitive world of ours, consumers need to be handled with care and engaged with on their terms about the issues that are important to them, no matter how – and particularly if they are – small. Doing otherwise may simply be covertly deteriorating the consumer – brand relationship out of all proportion to the initial event.

Alex McCluckie is a research manager at DJS Research


Gilbert, D. et al., ( 2004 ).  The Peculiar Longevity of Things Not So Bad. Psychological Science 15 ( 1 ), 14-19.


8 years ago

Excellent thought provoking article.

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8 years ago

Fascinating article. In some ways the research echoes the sentiments of Chekhov, “Any fool can face a crisis; it’s day-to-day living that wears you out.” The apparently small irritations which fester. The astute and succinct way the writer of the article has extrapolated the potential implications for consumer-brand relationships is impressive.

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