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In a recent post,* I warned that the persuasion tactic of Social Proof also applies in reverse. My warning applies to other persuasion tactics as well.

Consider the Principle of Reciprocation, which states that when someone does us a favor, we feel a strong urge to pay it back. The principle works just as well in reverse: Treat people shabbily, and they’ll want to pay that back too!

When we’re treated unfairly, we get angry. And it’s truly astonishing the lengths we’ll go to get even.

Our impulse to seek revenge has been demonstrated experimentally by Dan Ariely and others. There are also countless real-world examples. Here are a few.

Audi’s Legendary Customer Disservice

When Dan Ariely’s new Audi suddenly died — at the worst possible time, nearly causing an accident — he contacted Audi customer service, expecting the problem would be resolved quickly and courteously. (Or that at least Audi would seem to care.) Instead, the customer service rep was rude, indifferent, and extremely unhelpful. And things went downhill from there…

This incident so annoyed Dan that he sold the car (which he previously loved) and will never buy another Audi. He then told everyone he knew about the incident, and wrote about it in The Upside of Irrationality.

Houston’s Very Bad Hotel

Two weary business travelers arrived at Houston’s DoubleTree Club Hotel at 2:00 a.m. Despite having confirmed reservations, they were refused rooms. Worse, Mike the night clerk was “deeply unapologetic”.

The would-be guests were so incensed, they produced a funny yet damning PowerPoint presentation outlining their ordeal. Then they sent it to their colleagues, the hotel’s senior management, and everyone else they could think of. The presentation went viral and has now been viewed by countless thousands of business travelers.

The iPod’s “Sweet Irreplaceable” Battery

An iPod owner contacted Apple to enquire about replacing the battery in his iPod. The customer service representative casually told him he’d be better off just buying a new one.

This ticked him off so much, that he started a dedicated campaign of defacing Apple advertising, warning potential buyers that iPod batteries can’t be replaced.

My Own Example: The Lying Hounds at Bank of Montreal

When I was a student back in the 80’s, the Bank of Montreal administered my loans. One day, they sent me a form letter stating that “for my convenience”, they were centralizing student loan administration in one branch in suburban Toronto. (An area known to Torontonians as “Scarberia” due to its remoteness.)

Formerly, I could walk across the street and do the paperwork at my local branch. Now, I had to make my way to the middle of nowhere — 3 buses and 2 trains each way!

Had the bank’s letter been apologetic in tone (explaining the necessity to cut costs) I probably would have forgiven them. But the outright LIE that they were doing this “for my convenience” was an insult. I closed my account, told everyone I knew about it, and refused to do business with the Bank of Montreal for the next 25 years.

Think about it: A few ill-considered words on a form letter, and they lost my business (and presumably others’) for 25 years. Such was my thirst for revenge.

Why Such a Strong Impulse for Revenge?

Though our obsession with revenge may seem irrational, it’s actually quite logical… and even necessary.

To survive in modern society, we must be able to rely on our social and business contracts. And to ensure reliability, these contracts must be enforced:

  • The principle of reciprocation is the positive side, the carrot. Act like a star, and you’ll be rewarded.
  • Revenge is the stick. Treat customers badly, and you’ll be punished in ways that may damn well amaze you.

So be careful how you treat customers. Insult them or treat them indifferently and they’ll remember. They’ll tell their friends (like my friend’s experience with They may even post videos… or write blog posts.

* See Beware Negative Social Proof.