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Op-Ed

The Twisted Reason Why We Love Restaurants that Treat Us Like Crap

It turns out that we're all gluttons for punishment.

Ximena N. Larkin

Screenshot from TBS. 

We all know “the customer is always right” isn’t actually a thing. There are a ton of subtle, low-impact ways a restaurant might communicate to you that your convenience does not come first. Maybe your favorite place is cash-only, or maybe it keeps inexplicable hours, or maybe there are very specific rules for customer behavior, or maybe the service is just genuinely terrible. Or maybe they’re just straight up mean, or the food never comes, or your order always gets messed up.

And there might be good reasons for all of those things (except maybe the last few)—but even so, why do you keep going back? We asked a bunch of experts why we love the restaurants who hate us.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula, professor of psychology at California State University Los Angeles and author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving A Relationship with a Narcissist, told me over email that the adage of the customer always being right is “downright quaint” and most times people “habituate to bad behaviors.”

Why?

Customer satisfaction is a result of two factors, says Vassilis Dalakas, professor of marketing at Cal State University San Marcos, via email. There’s “technical quality,” which relates to the outcome of the experience, and “functional quality,” which is the process through which the outcome is delivered.



In other words, the process of getting your food is separate from the quality of the food itself. If the process is bad, “that by itself may not be enough to deter a customer from returning if the technical quality, regarding the outcome, is great. Customers may tolerate bad service from a food vendor if they feel the food provided is truly great.” This is known as the prediction error.

Which is to say that a positive experience on one side (great food or excellent service) can outweigh a negative experience on the other side. “Experiences which exceed our expectations lead to an increase in dopamine,” says Matt Johnson, professor of psychology at Hult International Business School. “Which increases our drive to repeat that experience.”

So if a restaurant’s service is bad before the food arrives, that sets low expectations for the quality of the meal. When the food exceeds the low baseline set by the bad service, the pleasant surprise releases dopamine, the chemical our brain produces in association with sex, love and addiction. So even a place with the most terrible service (or food) can still redeem itself and draw you back in. Over-the-top, personalized, or attentive service can help mellow the sting of a mediocre or bad meal, the same way a delicious meal can offset bad service.

And sure, it makes sense to eliminate the risk and just go places where both the food and service are good. But Chris Olivola, assistant professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon University, points to the status quo bias as the reason why customers frequent the same places, even if they’ve had less-than-favorable experiences.

“Once people find something they really like, they stick to it,” he says on the phone. “Most people won’t try something new or different. They’d rather go with the option they know, even if it’s mediocre, because new is associated with risk and failure.” Change can feel like punishment if trying something new doesn’t lead to exceptional results, Olivola adds. Most folks choose to avoid discomfort by sticking to what they know, even if it’s not great.

Put another way, it’s easy to do the same thing you’ve always done. There’s comfort in the familiar, says Laura MacLeod, social worker and adjunct professor at Hunter College. Time and effort are both required to find a place who offers it all. And most people aren’t willing to endure the journey, filled with rejection and failure, that’s necessary to find a unicorn.

The willingness to stay and suffer is something Durvasula says can be caused by a personality trait (usually associated with dependency and self-disparagement) that leaves people anxious about trying new things and more likely to avoid conflict. For this kind of person, “new social situations may raise anxiety and they may lack sufficient self-valuation to advocate for themselves.”

But if that doesn’t sound like you, Durvasula offers up a different reason why a person continue to frequent establishments that abuse their patrons: It’s part of the hype.

“If other people are enduring this bad treatment, our lines of cognitive dissonance would hold that we will think the food is delicious because we went through so much to get it,” she says. “The rudeness becomes part of the hype and we live in a hype-heavy culture where enduring bad treatment becomes a badge of honor.”

This line of thinking is echoed by Johnson. He says a restaurant with average food and service might be an overall good experience, but there’s no social equity in telling your friends about an average meal.



And of course, ‘bad’ service and ‘bad’ food is subjective: There’s a sliding scale of what ‘bad’ means and the amount of tolerance a customer might have for it. Some people are willing to wait in lines for hours, and others aren’t others aren’t. And culture plays a role, too, Olivola points out; the over-attentive waiter who is a hallmark of good service in the U.S. would be seen as pretty annoying in his native France. “What looks like less-than-favorable service to us might be fine to others if they’re not used to something better,” he says.

Memory is a factor, too: “When it comes to the experiential, memory is malleable and unreliable,” says Olivola. He cites the peak end rule, a psychological tool in which people remember the most intense part of an experience. If, say, you’re on vacation and get into a serious fight with your travel partner, you might see the whole trip as a bad memory—but if your vacation is overall more pleasant than the hassle of getting to the airport, or dealing with customs, then your overall memory is going to be positive.

Durvasula makes the point, too, that people who are indifferent to bad service have a particular form of resilience. “They don’t personalize the rude behavior of strangers to their meal,” he says. “These folks may not extend unnecessary energy to care what a waiter or chef thinks. They get the food and get out.”

Dining in someone’s establishment means you agree to abide by their rules. Proceed at your own risk.