Why your business is affected by doctor’s waiting room decor from the 70’s and air travellers are ratty.

Posted by on February 18, 2010 in Blog | 0 comments

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Last week I was waiting to check in at the airport and was confounded by the rudeness of fellow travellers toward the airline after a delay. This morning, while having a meeting at a coffee-shop at an upmarket mall, I noticed little kids throwing tantrums and being rude towards everyone in their immediate environment. Then I got back to my home-office where I was faced with more short-temperedness because I forgot to buy a new supply of coffee for the coffee machine.

Instead, I took everyone to our favourite coffee shop on the corner for a cappuccino. Noble I know, but my reason was much deeper than scoring brownie-points. Familiarity will cheer people up, while people will only embrace newness and novelty when they’re in a positive mood.

I’m willing to bet that the travellers at the airport aren’t like that to their wives or to people in general when they are at home. I’m also willing to bet that the noisy tantrum-throwing monsters can be the sweetest bundles of joy when they are rested and fed. I know that the folks at the office were a lot happier with me when I bought them frothy cappuccinos at the new coffee house up the road. It cost me a couple of bob, and shut the office down for an hour, but so what. In the while that we’ve been back, there’s a marked difference in everyone’s attitude, performance and outputs.

This only serves to highlight the findings of a recent study led by University of California, San Diego psychology professor Piotr Winkielman and Marieke de Vries, from the Leiden University Medical Centre in the Netherlands

"We thought the value of familiarity would depend on the context," de Vries said. "Familiarity signals safety, which is pleasant in an unsafe or stressful context but might actually get boring when all is going fine."


They examined the idea by presenting participants with random dot patterns resembling constellations in the sky and made these familiar through exposure. The researchers put some of the participants in a good mood and others in a bad mood — by asking them to recall joyous or sad events in their lives. They then maintained the mood by playing appropriate music during the remainder of the test. Finally, they measured participants’ emotional and memory responses to the dot patterns with ratings and, critically, with physiological measures (skin conductors to assess sweat and facial electrodes to detect incipient frowns and smiles).


As predicted, saddened participants showed the classic preference for the familiar, even smiling at the sight of familiar patterns. A happy mood, however, eliminated the preference. "When you’re happy," Winkielman said, "known things, familiar things lose their appeal. Novelty, on the other hand, becomes more attractive."


The findings, Winkielman said, not only contribute to understanding basic human psychology but also have numerous applications: To parenting and other interpersonal relationships and even in many of the "persuasion professions." In business, in marketing and advertising and in political campaigns, people would be well-advised to take note of the research.


When companies introduce novel products, for example, they may want to do so in settings that encourage a happy, playful mood. A surgeon’s office, meanwhile, Winkielman said, which people visit rarely and in stressful circumstances, should probably stay away from edgy décor, opting instead for the comfy and familiar. Which will explain why your doctor’s waiting room dates from the 70’s.

This also explains why travellers are ratty, kids scream at the mall and why company motivational sessions at new resorts, new business processes and the new business environment are causing people to stop being innovative and trying new stuff.

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