Why Your Customers Have Negativity Bias

by | May 19, 2015 | Assorted, Market Research

If you’re in sales and marketing or an organisation focussed on improving the customer experience, you’ve probably heard a few statistics that affirm the notion that customers both cling to, and spread, negative interactions and experiences far more than positive ones.

Of course, these statistics have a huge impact on your business and ultimately your bottom line, but why do customers have this tendency?

The negative bias or negative effect explains this phenomenon. It is applicable, not only to how customers interact with brands, but how they behave in their everyday lives – as individuals and not customers.  Wikipedia describes it as the idea that, even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions; harmful/traumatic events) have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than do neutral or positive things.  In other words, something very positive will generally have less of an impact on a person’s behaviour and cognition than something equally emotional but negative.

Having a great day at the office today won’t have any significant effect on tomorrow, but have a bad day and you’ll be feeling it all week. As individuals, we interpret the negative more quickly and do a more thorough job of it than positive – so the bad stuff tends to stick. At a social level, we put more effort into avoiding a ‘bad reputation’ than in forging a good one. And emotionally we try hard to avoid a bad mood than to revel in a good one. At face value, you might think that we’re wired to be negative and you wouldn’t be completely wrong.

Negative potency, steeper negative gradients, negative dominance and negative differentiation are proposed by University of Pennsylvania lecturers, Paul Rozin and Edward Royzman to be the four components of negativity bias.

In order to better understand negativity bias, we will need to examine each of the components of negativity bias and first understand those.

Negative Potency

This component refers to the idea that while possibly of equal magnitude, negative and positive events are not equally salient. Think of it this way. You have two bicycles insured with two different insurance houses. They’re both stolen. One insurance house pays for the replacement, the other repudiates the claim. One of those events is more likely to stick with you. This is negative potency at work.

Steeper Negative Gradient

This speaks more to timelines than negative potency. Gradients assume that the closer you get to a negative or positive event, the more positivity or negativity respectively, associated with the event. The steeper negative gradient proposes that for negative events, this gradient is steeper, i.e. negative events are perceived as increasingly more negative the closer to the date than positive events. For example, the negative experience of an impending dental surgery is perceived as increasingly more negative the closer one gets to the date of surgery than the positive experience of an impending party is perceived as increasingly more positive the closer one gets to the date of celebration (assuming for the sake of this example that these events are equally positive and negative).

Negativity Dominance

This describes the tendency of individuals to skew results from a particular event or interact towards a more negative outcome than would be suggested by the summation of individual positive and negative components. In other words, an entire customer journey is likely to be construed as negative, even if only 2 of the steps within the 7 step journey were actually negative.

Negative Differentiation

This points to the fact that the concept of negativity is far more elaborate or complex than that of positivity. To illustrate this, there are on average three or four words to describe negative emotions for every one word that describes a positive emotion. Because the concept of negativity is so much more complex than that of positivity, it requires greater mobilization of cognitive function to deal with and therefore stays with the consumer longer than a positive experience would.

Understanding what makes up negativity bias is a step towards understanding why your customer thinks about you the way that they do. As a positive for businesses, because negativity bias exists in this way, customers are far more willing to talk about their negative experiences not only to their friends and family, but also to you. This gives you the opportunity to not only react to their perceptions accurately, but also to ensure that you’re perceived in a better light by the next customer.