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Weird Expectations

by Miriam Axel-Lute on January 19, 2011

On Monday afternoon, I was sitting in my parents’ car, in the middle of the usual New York City/New Jersey bound Thruway traffic that comes at the end of a long weekend. We were wondering about whether we’d made a mistake not to stop at the last rest area, and though I was glad for a chance to chat with my folks and save my employer a few bucks, I still found a part of myself thinking fondly of the more predictable, comfortable train ride I usually take.

Is it funny to call Amtrak predictable or reliable? To many it would be. It’s no European or Chinese railway, surely. Anyone who has taken it enough has a story of delays or breakdowns. But it comes in for abuse way beyond what it’s due.

It’s become an example to me of one more way that humans are not good at analyzing data on the fly. Along with being really consistent about being much more scared of dramatic and extreme but very very unlikely dangers as compared to pretty darn bad and very common dangers, we also let first impressions and reputation carry far more weight that they ought to. It means that bad experiences with certain kinds of things—things we’re uncertain about or that have mixed reputations, like public transportation or small local businesses, for example, loom so much larger than bad experiences with their alternatives.

Airlines, for example, have disastrous delays and other snafus—overbooking and the like—on a near constant basis. But I’m astounded at how infrequently people hold that against plane travel. True, for a very long distance trip there are few alternatives, but even for a mid distance trip to an urban center where one could take a train instead, an accurate comparison of the time and comfort of the two rarely happens. People usually compare the actual time on the main vehicle, leaving out the bit where airports are a pain the neck to get to, parking takes time, you have to get there really early, there’s security and then on the other end, you’ve arrived at an airport and need to rent a car or get a taxi to go a pretty long way to get where you are actually going, as opposed to pulling in to the center of town. Plus delays and getting bumped and all that. A train ride that is nominally longer may not really be. But one late train five years ago and the whole idea gets written off.

Can you imagine if people swore off driving the first time they spun out on the ice or were late to something important due to a traffic jam?
I worked on a report not long ago on buy-local policies implemented by institutions that recognize their self-interest in supporting their own local economies. The then-director of purchasing at University of Pennsylvania, who was a leader in crafting and implementing Penn’s trailblazing work in this area, refused to pay premiums for local vendors. He made them adhere to the same bidding rules as everyone else, and just mentored them through the process. He told me that he frequently ran into people on campus who didn’t want to buy things from a local vendor because they once had a bad experience with one. “How many times have you had a problem with an order from IBM?” he would ask them. “Or other larger vendors?” Always they had. “Then let’s not have a double standard.”

I think we’re probably all a little like those people he was talking with. I’m sure that there are these few areas where I’m sensitized to the double standard and resist it and many more where I am blithely not. Something familiar, something that has a reputation for being efficient, or a good value, or worth it in some way, has many data points in our head. In those cases, one bad experience is just one more data point. It’s not a first impression. It’s not definitive. But for anything new or different, something we distrust, or others around us distrust, or is merely an unknown, one bad experience looms large.

There’s probably more of a role for marketing and branding in here than I might usually think of. But in the meantime the only clear response to this dynamic I can make is to check myself for it at regular intervals and try to point it out in a non obnoxious way when I run into it elsewhere. Point it out to me too, OK?