Rory Sutherland

The Wiki Man: Losing track

About a month ago at a conference I was shown an analysis of customer satisfaction surveys from a large hotel in the United States.

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About a month ago at a conference I was shown an analysis of customer satisfaction surveys from a large hotel in the United States. What emerged from this study was that a guest’s enjoyment and appreciation of almost every aspect of a hotel is coloured by their initial experience of their visit — specifically how fast and easy they had found the business of checking-in. People arriving at a quiet moment who received their room keys in a minute were far more complimentary about every aspect of their stay than those made to wait. Not only did they rate the hotel’s service more highly, but they also believed the food to be tastier, the rooms cleaner, and the gardens more attractive. People made to wait on arrival were more critical about everything.

Devotees of behavioural economics will not be surprised by this discovery, as it shows the workings of something known as ‘confirmation bias’. Having formed a judgment of something, we are alert to anything which corroborates our first impressions and are relatively blind to anything which conflicts. It supports other research suggesting our memories of events are much more determined by how they begin and end than by ‘the stuff in the middle’. (The NHS does itself a disservice here — the stuff in the middle is often good, but the admission and discharge procedures are dreadful.) What has very little effect on our memory of any experience is its duration.

The finding delights me, since it provides scientific justification for a proposal that will, I think, enjoy the support of anyone not employed by the construction industry. Instead of sluicing £25 billion pounds into a high-speed railway line between London and Birmingham, spend 0.1 per cent of this money rebuilding the Euston Arch. Just as the restoration of St Pancras has contributed far more to my willingness to visit Paris than shorter journeys, Birmingham would become instantly more attractive if reached through a Doric propylaeum.

There are only two approaches to the railways in Britain. Either you are a hardline pragmatist (a position held by and by the late Sir Alfred Sherman) in which case many of Britain’s railway lines should be concreted over and used as roads for coach travel, or else you are a romanticist, in which case your justification for the railways is emotional. Pound for pound, high-speed rail scores badly on both dimensions.

It is a shame that a government which has professed itself interested in measures of progress other than GDP should be swayed by fatuous statistics concerning the economic contribution of faster trains — calculations which neglect the fact that the growth in demand for transportation in developed countries seems to be stalling (and which also assume that all time spent on a train is unproductive: a claim which in the Blackberry age is the opposite of the truth). The figures also ignore the impact of technologies including video conferencing, which may reduce the need to travel at all.

A genuine ‘Big Society’ approach to this issue would be to allow the public to vote on different uses for the £25 billion, including local improvements to the rail network (such as better parking at stations, better connections between stations, Wi-Fi on trains or even better roads). It is possible people would vote for a few romantic grands projets too, such as a sleeper service between London and Rome. What few people would say is ‘look, rather than cutting my taxes next year, I’d prefer it if, 15 years from now, just after I’ve retired, you could reduce the journey time between Birmingham and London by about 15 per cent’. For, once you include time spent getting to and from each station, 15 per cent is all you get.

Written byRory Sutherland

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK. He writes The Spectator's Wiki Man column.

Topics in this articleSociety