The importance of feeling important

The importance of feeling important

If you want to read one of the funniest passages of writing to appear anywhere in the past ten years, may I recommend Richard Thaler’s memoir Misbehaving. Best of all is the chapter in which he describes the extraordinary in-fighting that accompanied a move to new offices by the Faculty of Economics at the University of Chicago.

Theoretically, the allocation of the new offices should have been simple. Since economics as a science concerns itself with the optimal, rational allocation of resources under conditions of scarcity, dividing up the offices should have been a breeze; if any problem was designed for economists to solve, it was surely this one.

Of course, the process was a disaster. One young (and wealthy) economist, as you might expect, suggested that the rooms be auctioned off to the highest bidder; this was ruled out, as it would have meant that minor economists with valuable consulting practices might end up in more prestigious offices than Nobel Prize-winners. The machinations went on for months.

Reading this passage, it occurred to me that there is room for a wholly new academic discipline called ‘esteem-onomics’, which studies how to allocate scarce resources to a group of people while minimising damage to people’s self-esteem. This, after all, was what the problem was really about. The economists’ idea of ‘utility’ was really not relevant here. None of the rooms was so small that it would have made a significant practical difference to the occupant: this was a matter of relative status, not absolute value.

I am hardly new in pointing out the importance of self-esteem in human psychology. But there is, I think, much more work to be done. As Rochefoucauld remarked in his Maxims: “Explore as we will within the boundaries of our selfesteem, there remain undiscovered regions.”

Good UX, I suspect, owes much of its success to the effect it has on the self-esteem of the users. As I never tire of pointing out, Uber’s popularity is in large part attributable to the role played by the map – and the non-physical payment – in boosting the user’s sense of control and self-importance. When you can time your emergence onto the pavement to coincide with the very moment your car draws up, you feel a tiny bit like Louis XIV. The same applies when you step out of the car without (physically) paying. You don’t actually say, “Thank you, James” – not least because the driver is usually called Igor or Stanislav – but you feel like saying it nonetheless. Similarly, I can’t quite explain why, but the act of using contactless payment for a bus journey feels much more masterly than paying with coins.

By contrast, the supermarkets’ loudly spoken “Unidentified object is the bagging area” is not only insulting (adding the word ‘sorry’ would help) but it is all the more humiliating for being announced out loud in a public place rather than displayed on screen.

In Darwinian terms, our obsession with self-esteem makes perfect sense. The ability convincingly to exude confidence is perhaps the biggest determinant of success in speeddating. This is primal. And so, for marketers, considering how you can contribute to boosting the self-esteem of your customers should not be a sideline – it is perhaps one of the most important things you can do. How would your call-centre scripts change if you rewrote them with the single-minded purpose of generating self-esteem in the callers?

There are two other reasons to pay attention to moments in the customer journey where an individual’s esteem is in the balance. First of all, market research will always underplay the importance of self-esteem, since it is mostly felt and not thought, and because most cultures tend to downplay it: in reality, your typical ABC1 in their craving for respect is much more like Puff Daddy or Ghostface Killah than they would readily admit.

But the best reason of all is that, by a kind of psychological alchemy, generating self-esteem can produce a huge amount of customer happiness at a very low cost. By understanding the role of esteem, you can even take moments that people hate and make them rewarding.

The best single example of this happened to me on a British Airways flight this year. Usually, passengers are told: “We apologise but there is no air bridge available this evening, so a bus will be provided to take you to the terminal.” All frequent flyers hate this – not, I suspect, for utilitarian reasons, but because the bus makes you feel like a second-class citizen.

On this occasion, the pilot was a psychological genius. He announced: “I have some bad news and some good news. We can’t get an air bridge this evening, but the good news is that the bus will take you straight to passport control, so you won’t have far to walk.” None of us on the aeroplane had ever been told, or even considered, that there might be an upside to the bus. We left the aircraft almost feeling grateful.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of OgilvyOne
London and Ogilvy Group UK
[email protected]