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Behavioural Science

Great Expectations : Evaluating Experiences

All of us in advertising want a clear way to measure impact. The most obvious way has always been to try to draw a straight line between the customer experience and some measurable outcome. But over time that has proven to be a tricky proposition. As we all know, sometimes a great experience doesn’t yield the desired outcome, and the opposite is also true: Mediocre experiences can, paradoxically, yield disproportionally positive returns. What kinds of forces are at work here?

Let’s just say that customer expectations can deliver unexpected results.

On the surface, expectations seem like a simple enough concept to get your head around. But dig deeper and you bump up against some more complicated questions:

  • How are expectations formed?
  • Are they measurable in a consistent way?
  • Do they evolve?
  • Can expectations be managed—and if so, how and with what tools?

The first thing to know as we set out after the answers is that there are biological reasons we behave the way we do. One guiding force is something called negativity bias—the tendency for humans to overstress the negative even in predominantly positive circumstances.


Remember when your report card had four As and one C? Which grade did you dwell on most? The reason you probably answered the C dates back to early human history. In prehistoric times, a trip to fetch water could precipitate a run-in with a saber-toothed tiger—a possibility that caused our ancestors to develop biological skepticism, according to Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Taking a negative worldview was a survival technique—and that mindset still manifests to this day.

Another thing to understand is that our memories frequently misrepresent the way we experienced something. Kahneman recently recounted an anecdote in which a person described listening to 20 minutes of gorgeous classical music—at the end of which there was a screeching sound. That jarring moment “ruined the whole experience,” the listener said. But it hadn’t, Kahneman argues: What it had ruined were the memories of the experience. But that’s perception for you. One landmark study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reported that in order to counteract a single negative experience, we need five positive experiences.

This science is the basis for what’s called the Peak-End Rule, a precept that states that we judge our experiences almost entirely by their peak and their ending, regardless of the quality of the experience. (A peak can be a high point or low.)


To illustrate how highs and troughs can contribute to the overall evaluation of an experience, let’s revisit the story of the screeching music—and play that out a little further. What follows are two nearly identical customer journeys, one that might be evaluated as bad and the other good—even though they were both resolved identically.


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