After landing at Gatwick, the plane taxied for five minutes or so and then came to a halt in the middle of an outlying patch of tarmac. I heard the engines wind down. ‘Oh shit!’ I thought to myself. ‘It’s going to be a bus.’ Until then, I had always felt short-changed and mildly resentful when forced to take a bus to the terminal rather than being offered a proper air bridge.
Then the pilot made an announcement so psychologically astute that I wanted to offer him a job.
‘I’ve got some bad news and some good news,’ he said. ‘The bad news is that another aircraft is blocking our arrival gate, so it’ll have to be a bus. The good news is that the bus will drop you off right next to passport control, so you won’t have far to walk with your bags.’
After years of flying, I suddenly realised that what he said was always true. The bus drops you off right where you need to be: you don’t have to lug your carry-on bags for 800 yards through a shopping centre before you can get to the exit. Yet, for most of us on the flight, this was a revelation. When we arrived promptly at passport control we were, for the first time, rather grateful for the bus. Nothing had changed objectively, but now we had a new story to tell ourselves.
This illustrates a simple truth about human psychology which dates back to Aesop and his fable of the fox and the grapes. Given the chance, our brain will do its best to minimise any feelings of regret, but it does need a plausible story to perform this feat. The reason we hated being bused to the terminal was not because it was intrinsically bad, but because nobody knew of any redeeming advantages to help us see it in a positive light. Once we knew there was an upside, we were free to minimise the pain of cognitive dissonance by choosing to see the bus as a convenience and not an annoyance. ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’
It seems we can mentally cope with trade-offs: what is intolerable are those experiences where there is no discernible upside at all. In such cases there is nothing to help us escape the pain of cognitive dissonance. Even when people make fairly silly decisions, they can usually post-rationalise them. What upsets us most are those inescapable things where there is no apparent positive — paying tax, speed-camera fines, season-ticket increases, utility bills. The very act of choosing something generally makes us like it more.
This is one reason why public services and monopolies, even when they do a good job objectively, are often under-appreciated. It is simply harder to like something when you haven’t chosen it. This is why people who will happily pay £200 for a pair of shoes resent paying their electricity bill.
Last week in The Spectator, Peter Jones suggested something I have long believed — that the tax system should offer some kind of quid pro quo, even if it is largely symbolic, to people and companies who pay more tax. The Greeks, he explained, designed their system of wealth tax so that it offered bragging rights to those who provided public goods. Rich Athenians relished competing among themselves to fund a better trireme than their fellows.
Permitting modern businesses to display some sort of tax kitemark would at least allow them to justify to themselves why it was worth paying more than the legal minimum. It may be a small thing in economic terms, but at least there is some positive spin to be put on it. Remember, when we construct stories, our intended audience isn’t only other people. It is also ourselves.
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.