Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, May 22, 2023
by Neil Senturia
A simple story. I will let readers reach their own conclusion.
I have subscribed to The New Yorker magazine for more than 30 years. Last week, I got a piece of snail mail that alerts me that they are going to “auto” renew my subscription for $129. I like the magazine, but not at that price. I call up subscription, and I tell them to lower the price or I walk.
And after only a few minutes (this did not take a great deal of effort), they lower the price to $89. Thank you, but can you do better. The lady says $79, and I say “sold.”
Now let’s analyze this a bit more. Why did you try to take advantage of me in the first place with the double-auto-whipsaw? Then you make me call and haggle like I was at a swap meet or buying cheap jewelry in a foreign bazaar. Just offer me the best deal for a longtime subscriber.
The upshot of the whole thing is that you hardened my heart about your magazine in order to get a few extra dollars. Now I don’t trust you and your marketing words about “brand purpose.” Do you think I will speak well of this experience in the future and recommend someone to subscribe? Customer satisfaction, thy name is mud.
This behavior is not unique. It goes on all the time in multiple industries. It is a risk/reward puzzle. The assumption is that a certain subset of customers will just shut up and pay up. And that ratio will be greater than the lesser number of customers who get pissed off and leave.
Corporate bad behavior is one thing, but what happens when it is personal — when you or I personally act badly? For that, I turn to professors Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School and Maryam Kouchaki, a behavioral research specialist at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. They did research into what they call “unethical amnesia.” A good example is the classic congressional testimony dance in which the participant before the panel says, “I don’t recall” 238 times.
We selectively forget our wrongdoings. No one wants to be reminded of or asked to dredge up from the past their embarrassing misdeeds. Gino says, having to remember your unethical behavior “creates psychological distress and discomfort,” so we go hazy and foggy and we obfuscate the truth. We do a nuanced dance on the head of a pin.
Golf is a game, so they say, of honor. “Put me down for a five” when you really had a seven, happens all the time. But what Gino finds is that when you lie, you experience “cognitive dissonance.” Your brain actually hurts because you are conflicted by your dishonest actions versus your desired belief and desire to do the right thing. It actually affects your next swing.
As time passes, you start to forget the true details of the event, and after a drink at the bar, that five can become a four. After a few hours, the truth slips into the lake, just like your first tee shot.
This issue is often center stage with the entrepreneur CEO. He/she wants to set the example of good behavior and high standards, but “unethical amnesia limits retrieval of unwanted memories.” We have all been guilty of revisionist history. In my own little world, from time to time, I embellish the facts, just a little, just enough. We all want to think of ourselves in a way that pleases us, that shows us in the best human, caring light, how we want to be seen.
When we are confronted by the other person with the facts, we become uncomfortable. We change the subject. We know the truth. We would just prefer you didn’t remind me. We politely “forget.”
In the case of the sociopath, however, there is less of a moral compass. There is no visceral or cognitive discomfort in that person because it is a white-out, total rejection of the facts. I won’t offer a list of nominees; you can make your own.
Kouchki says, “creating a habit of self-reflection helps to keep honest memories alive.” The key word there is honest. An excellent way to do that is to write the event down in ink, which makes it much harder to engage in self-delusion — no eraser.
Rule No. 761:
“Remembrance of Things Past”
— Marcel Proust