Skip to main content

by Miriam Axel-Lute
January 20, 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?

Reposted with permission of the author through a Creative Commons License

EMAIL TO A FRIEND X
Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags

?

More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site