Emily Yoffe’s article Well, Excuuuuuse Meee! prompted this post. (Thanks G, for pointing me to this article.)


Much of economic theory is based on the notion that humans make rational choices (which may mean that economists don't get out much). In 1982, some economists came up with a little game to study negotiating strategies. The results showed that rationality is subservient to more powerful drives—and demonstrated why human beings so easily conclude they are being wronged.

Well there you go; nothing new here if you have been reading my blog. Decisions, including business decisions backed up by reams of figures, are never as rational as we’d like to believe.


[Scientists who] have been studying the origin and expression of moral emotions—our instinctive feelings of right and wrong … say Homo sapiens did not invent morality; instead, we come equipped with it.

This study in Nature … found that groups of 6-month- and 10-month-old babies watching a film could not only distinguish between characters that either helped or hindered a wooden character that was stuck, but that virtually all the babies, when given the chance, reached for the helper, not the hinderer.

we have a finely developed ability to detect those who cheat in social exchanges.

We innately know the difference between right and wrong. We innately know when a business is doing the dirty on us. Even when said business attempts to distract, mollify and hide the less-than-rightness of their actions, customers will feel it in their guts. It may take them a while to articulate this though. Perhaps this truth-recognition delay explains why so many bad businesses continue to exist for as long as they do.

There have certainly been many moments in my life when I had ignored my gut feel about a project or a working relationship; consistently to my own detriment. My rational brain overrode my gut feel – bad call.


… our lives as social beings are ruled by the three R's: respect—the sense that proper deference has been paid to our status, reputation—the carefully maintained perception of our qualities, and reciprocity—the belief that our actions are responded to fairly.

Every business needs to respect their customers, in order to gain respect in return. Believing or expecting less of your customers is a sign of disrespect.

Reputation is a function of past actions and marketing communications. Perceptions can be maintained in so far that the actions of the business supports the communications.

Reciprocity is interesting; and is related to respect. Do you, as a business, believe that your offerings and contributions are valued by your customers? Do you think they are too dumb to get what you are about? Do you feel they value you? If you don’t, you will resent them. And in turn, they will reciprocate that feeling. Thus:


We also are subject to a powerful need to mirror others. … when someone confronts us with a nasty tone, we can end up mimicking it without even meaning to.

This is a great reminder to review all your customer touchpoints. Are they potentially offensive? A friend of mine recent had a perfectly reasonable order request at a restaurant refused. They simply could not replace an item with another equivalent, available item “because our portion-controlled processes won’t let us do that”.

It pays to be vigilant because “many of our social judgements and actions are automatic, and after the fact our brains make up a justification.” Customers feedback forms don’t tell the whole truth most of the time.

The proactive side of mirroring enables businesses to build intimacy with their customers. By mimicking the language use, behaviour and thinking patterns of customers, a business can appear to be more in-tune with their needs. Even we as individuals naturally mirror the body language of people we like.

Social Empathy

[Our] sense of indignation is not just limited to violations against us. Even if you're able-bodied, think of how offended you feel when you see another able-bodied person pull into a handicapped parking spot.

Being on the alert for scoundrels is exhausting, and confronting those who violate social rules is potentially dangerous. But humans feel compelled to do it because without vigilance, fairness and cooperation break down. Gazzaniga cites experiments that show that individuals who take the risk of punishing cheaters enhance their own reputation within a group.

Businesses can leverage this tendency towards social empathy by linking themselves to community causes they are passionate about. Cause-based differentiation is a real and powerful thing. A consulting business I co-founded a few years ago leveraged cause-based differentiation with great success.

Humans have superb abilities to evaluate the defects of everyone else. The glitch, Haidt says, is that we're blind to our own flaws.

Self Reflection

Yes, it is incredibly hard for an individual to be truthfully self-reflective. It is even harder for businesses especially those lead by more than a single person.

On the other hand, it can be hard to remember our strengths too. A few negative comments can overpower years of consistently good work. You may not need to fix or improve anything!


"Once we're angry, irritated, we become prosecutors, and our reasoning gets hijacked by our need to build our own case," he says. So he suggests we can stop the prosecution by making even a small gesture of conciliation.

Great advice for the Complaints Department. I am constant amazed at how unwilling many businesses are to simply say “We are sorry.” Or to keep the lawyers happy: “We are sorry you feel bad.” A little show of understanding and conciliation goes a long way. Understanding why a customer feel bad does not mean acknowledging fault or promising a fix.


I am not doing the great article justice here by pulling out specific chunks to comment on. Do do do read the full article. It has great links to videos and other research.