Flying starts, flagging finishes

Do we focus on first impressions at the expense of memorable finishes?

Have you ever had a construction or renovation project that goes something like this: At first, things start off well and there is a good relationship with the contractor. Their approach inspires confidence. Regular progress is made. But then the project hits a snag or two: something takes longer than budgeted for, or there is a delay with supplies. The level of service tapers off, as does the quality of workmanship (although interestingly, the invoices *don’t*).

I get it: most projects are a lot more fun at the front end. That’s the creative bit, and it’s full of possibilities. By comparison, the finishing stages are often full of niggling details and pieces that don’t quite fit as the plans said they should. It’s the point when the bits you didn’t quite think through at the beginning become painfully apparent.

If, at this stage, the contractor’s strategy is one of avoidance; trying to do as little as they can get away with to get the project off their books, the whole job ends on a sour note. And who’s going to recommend a contractor who they’ve had to drag across the finish line?

A project doesn’t have to end this badly for you to be unhappy with the result. All it needs to do is fail to live up to your expectations.

Finishing badly is even more disastrous when you consider the way we remember experiences. According to the peak-end rule, how an experience finishes has a strong influence on the way we recall it overall. Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues demonstrated that when we recall a physically painful experience (such as a colonoscopy, or putting our hands in very cold water), we judge it as being less unpleasant if the final stage was less painful, even if we endured the pain for a longer duration.

If we apply the peak-end rule to how we treat customers (and visitors), it would suggest that finishing on a high note is particularly important. We should definitely deliver what we promise, and only promise what we know we can deliver. If an experience ends with a pleasant surprise, that will enhance memory of the event overall. On the other hand, if it ends with disappointment, it sours the whole experience – no matter how well you did in the early stages.


Our Irrational Brains

Recently I wrote about three interesting books on the psychology of choice. In this post, I want to explore a couple of books that help to explain why humans sometimes make bad choices. Basically, our brain works in ways that can trick us into irrationality.

Nobel prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman illustrates this with the following example: imagine a bat and ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Without thinking, most people will jump in and say 10 cents. Your brain is probably itching to shout it out! But think about it: if the ball cost 10 cents, then the bat would have to cost $1.10 (we know the bat costs $1 more), meaning the two together would be $1.20. If we sit down and do the sums we can see the only answer that satisfies the supplied facts is that the ball costs 5 cents, the bat costs $1.05, and together they are $1.10. It’s basic arithmetic. So why are so many people fooled?

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman describes two distinct ways our brain thinks:

  • System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious
  • System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious

System 1 is the quick, instinctual and heuristic-led thinking that takes place without any real effort or control on our part. While it’s useful (we sometimes need to act rapidly without methodically thinking through every possible option), it’s also easily fooled in a way that our more methodical System 2 is not. But because System 1 acts subconsciouly, it can be hard not to listen to it. Even when System 2 thinking leads us to the correct answer (such as in the bat and ball example above), System 1 is still nagging us in the background, meaning the rational answer often just doesn’t “feel” right.

There are a number of heuristics the System 1 brain uses. One example is the availability heuristic – we tend to think things are more likely if we can recall specific examples of them happening. This is why people tend to think plane travel is riskier than it actually is, and might also be an explanation for why people tend to consistently overestimate the number of immigrants or the proportion of the population claiming unemployment benefits (two topics that are mainstays of the tabloid media).

In Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely describes how our economic decisions are affected by the way we think. Some of my favourite examples show how money can skew behaviour in unexpected ways.

In our market society, money is seemed as the ultimate incentive. However, as Ariely shows, it’s not as good a motivator as economic theory would have us believe, and can actually lead to perverse incentives. He describes research in which people who were paid to do a simple task did it less efficiently than people who were doing it without payment, as a favour. Adding money into the equation turns a social contract into an economic one, and it changes the nature of the transaction.

In one striking example, Ariely describes a study of a child care centre in Israel that started to charge fines of parents who collected their children late. Market logic would dictate that the fine would be a financial disincentive, and fewer children would be picked up late as a result. In fact, the opposite happened:  rather than parents apologetically arriving late (because they had transgressed a social norm), late pickups became more common. The fine was essentially seen as a fee-for-service, one which parents could pay for unapologetically. A social transaction had become an economic one. Interestingly, the tardy behaviour continued even when the fine was subsequently removed. A transaction based on goodwill had permanently shifted to one based on financial exchange.

Other studies show how things offered for free are perceived as qualitatively different from ones that attract a charge, even when that charge is quite modest. Even when the free offer is not the best offer available, most people will still opt for the free deal.

Choices, choices

Three books on my bookshelf (actually, audiobook library) are about the psychology of choice – how do people make decisions and what helps people feel more satisifed about their choices?

As decribed by Sheena Iyengar in the introduction to Art of Choosing, how much emphasis is placed on individual choice depends on the culture you come from. In the English-speaking world, and the US in particular, a high value is placed on individuals being able to make their own choices. Choice pervades the culture so fully that it is considered to be part of the natural order of things: having choice is seen as axiomatically logical, right and good. But other cultures may put more value on social harmony or professional expertise than individual choice, and may decide that individual choice is not always worth the cost. Indeed, when viewed through a different cultural lens, individualistic cultures look like people value the right to choose over their own self interest at times.

This suggests there is such thing as too much choice, and research bears that out. Iyengar’s most famous study was conducted at a jam display at an upmarket grocery store in California. Customers could come up and try the jams on display, and could then get a discount voucher for purchasing one of the jams on offer. The main thing that they changed over the course of the study was how many jams were on display at any given time: 6 or 24. Although a greater percentage of customers were attracted to the larger display, customers were much more likely to actually buy jam if they only had 6 to choose from at the outset.

This idea is explored further in Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice. Schwartz describes research that shows that not only does too much choice befuddle us and cause us to procrastinate in our quest to make the “right” choice, we’re often less happy with the choices we *do* eventually make. It seems that having a never-ending array of choices increases the fear we have of making the “wrong” choice, as well as the perpetual possibility that a better option is just around the next corner. It’s a recipe for inertia and dissatisfaction. Schwartz suggests we’d be better off making “good enough” choices that allow us to move on with our lives.

But what if we’re looking to guide the choices of others? This is an idea described in Thaler and Sunstein’s book Nudge. They describe the concept of “choice architecture”, that is, the way you present options to influence the choices people make. Many choices we have to make, like pension plans or energy supplier, tend to be confusing (and let’s face it: not particularly interesting). Rather than read up on all the options, most of us take whatever the default option is, irrespective of whether it’s the one that suits us best or not. In a philosophy they call “libertarian paternalism”, they argue that these default options should be ones that suit most people most of the time. That way, people are still free to make another choice if they wish, but for those who take the default path of least resistance (i.e. most of us, most of the time), we’d end up with a better option overall. We can also use choice architecture to make choices less confusing, for instance by sequentially narrowing down options rather than showing all of them up front.

Now all of this may seem a bit tangential to museum visitor experiences at first glance (although one of the goals of Project 50 is to broaden the scope of this blog a bit). But it shouldn’t take too big a leap of imagination to see that consumer psychology and visitor experiences are linked: the people who are putting off choosing their pension plans on a Wednesday are the same people who are trying to decide what to do to keep the family entertained on a wet Saturday afternoon, or where would be the best place to go on holiday next.

A museum visit is full of choices – from the first decision to visit a museum rather than do something else, then which museum to go to, what exhibitions to visit, what displays to look at, whether to stop at the cafe or buy a gift at the shop, and so on. Consumer psychology and visitor research both show that people like choice, but also they like a manageable number of choices, and they like to know what the consequences of their choices will be. And through understanding people, we can both guide those decisions and help people be happier about the choices they make.