What can we learn about buyers from studying monkeys?

Go ahead and make your jokes. I’ll wait.

All done? Let’s continue.

A neuroscientist at Cambridge University ran an experiment in which he squirted apple juice into monkey’s mouths and studied how it affected dopamine levels in their brain. Dopamine is a chemical that’s involved with pleasure and rewards. Monkeys like apple juice, so it’s not surprising that levels increased.

But here’s the odd thing. After a few rounds, the dopamine levels increased just before the juice hit the monkey’s tongue. In other words, the pleasure no longer came from the reward itself, but from the expectation of the reward.

According to David Brooks, author of The Social Animal, the reason it happens is because the brain constantly creates “predictive models” of how the world works. When things work out the way we expect them to – when the model is validated – we get a little rush of pleasure.

It’s easy to think of examples from daily life. “I knew that was going to happen!” we say with excitement. It’s why we like to guess the ending to the movie. And why we keep going back to our favorite restaurant. When things work out the way we expect them to, we get a jolt of dopamine – just like the monkeys.

And when things don’t work out, we suffer twice. We don’t get the reward. And we don’t get the dopamine. As a result, we feel bad out of all proportion to what was lost. We feel betrayed. Gullible. Maybe even ashamed: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

By now, you can probably see what this has to do with buyers. Everyone talks about “exceeding customers’ expectations,” and that’s great if you can do it. But what’s really important is not to disappoint their expectations. Your buyers have a “predictive model” about the future, based in part on what you told them. If the model fails, the buyer’s going to feel punished. And guess who else is going to get punished?

Photo Credit: MarkGrundland

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