The collapse of America’s financial markets continues apace, and today I discovered that Washington Mutual is gone. I could appreciate the trouble brought on by the loss of Lehman Brothers et al, but this one is particularly sad for me — not because it’s the largest bank failure in US history, but because I once banked with WaMu and loved that their ATMs said things like, “I’m sorry, it looks like I’m all out of money (it’s been a tough day).” Seriously, they said that. I guess they’re all saying that now.
My emotional connection to this faceless corporation went relatively unexplored for a long time, but recently I read the book Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. He’s very good at exploring the rational explanation for why we do irrational things, and one chapter of his book specifically deals with how we separate social norms from market norms. His first example is to describe what might happen if you were to offer your mother-in-law $100 for the lavish Thanksgiving dinner she just served. She’d probably be insulted, because you brought money into a relationship that had previously been solely familial.
Ariely goes on to describe how many corporations attempt to capitalize on social relationships with consumers, hoping that this will create more dedicated customers. The problem is that once they form those social bonds, like with ATMs that chat with you about their day, you feel much angrier or more disappointed when they let you down.
It reminds me of some of the feedback I get from Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe listeners. I’d guess that 99% is positive or neutral, and a lot of those emails involve people saying they like the show because it’s as if they’re hanging out with friends who happen to be discussing their favorite topics. That social connection, combined with the fact that the show is provided free of charge, might explain the 1% of emails that are negative.
The negative emails don’t just offer corrections to things we might have said or suggestions for show improvements (I consider both those to be positive or neutral contributions). No, the negative emails are downright angry — angry that we’ve fallen for Republican rhetoric (9/11 conspiracy theorists), Democrat rhetoric (global warming deniers), or big Pharma (anti-vaccination proponents), or angry that we’ve made a comment that is misinterpreted as bigoted, which happened recently on the SGU Forum. Sometimes they’re just angry that we haven’t spent as much time on a particular topic they’re interested in, or angry that we’re having too much fun and being too snarky. Whatever the cause, the emails are usually just dripping with bile.
I used to occasionally respond to these volleys with the argument that we do the best we can for a show that we offer for absolutely free. The show takes hours of work each week, but we do it and ask nothing in return from our audience. The forum, where many over-the-top complaints and insults have been posted, is also provided for free. It took me awhile to realize that that argument just did not register at all.
After reading Predictably Irrational, I have a very interesting new what-if: what if ironically, providing these things for free is the cause of (or main contributor to) those complaints? Ariely’s research showed that market-driven relationships were much more quickly forged and broken, while social relationships took much longer to establish and had more complex roots. By building a social relationship with listeners, we are risking the harsh backlash associated with perceived violations of the social contract, like when a listener suddenly feels betrayed. Were our relationship to be purely financial, that listener would simply stop paying for the service and get on with his life, instead of getting fired up and blasting off some (possibly premature and misguided) insults.
All of which is just to say: we should totally start charging for the podcast. (Kidding!)
This post went longer than I thought when I started it, so COTW will go up later!