Over the years, airlines have started charging for just about everything, packing flights with as many seats and people as possible, leaving space between seats that are comfortable only for a small child. They charge for checked bags, water, and in-flight snacks. They’ve even optimized airtime by getting planes to spend more time in the air and less time on the ground, and, as a consequence, guess what happens when there is one delay? You got it — a long sequence of delays across numerous airports that are all attributed to bad weather somewhere (“Not our fault,” says the airline). As a result of all of these injuries and insults, passengers often feel angry and hostile, and express their frustration in all kinds of ways.
One such flying revenge seeker made me suffer on a flight from Chicago to Boston. On boarding the flight, I had the pleasure of being seated in a middle seat, 17B, stuffed between two hefty individuals who were spilling into my seat. Soon after takeoff, I reached for the airline magazine in the seat pocket. Instead of feeling the firm touch of paper, I felt a cold glob of what might politely be called leftovers. I took my hand out and squeezed my way out of the seat to the toilet in order to wash my hands. There I found the surfaces covered with toilet paper, the floor wet with urine, and the soap dispenser empty. The passengers on the previous flight, as well as the one whose seat I was now occupying, must have been angry indeed (this feeling might have also infected the cleaning and maintenance crew). I suspect that the person who left me the wet gift in the seat pocket, as well as the passengers who messed up the toilet, did not hate me personally. However, in their attempt to express their anger at the airline, they took out their feelings on other passengers, who were now more likely to take further revenge.
Look around. Do you notice a general revenge reaction on the part of the public in response to the increase of bad treatment on the part of companies and institutions? Do you encounter more rudeness, ignorance, nonchalance, and sometimes hostility in stores, on flights, at car rental counters, and so on than ever before? I am not sure who started this chicken-and-egg problem, but as we consumers encounter offensive service, we become angrier and tend to take it out on the next service provider — whether or not he or she is responsible for our bad experience. The people receiving our emotional outbursts then go on to serve other customers, but because they are in a worse mood themselves, they aren’t in a position to be courteous and polite. And so goes the carousel of annoyance, frustration, and revenge in an ever-escalating cycle.
This is an extract from Dan Ariely's The Upside of Irrationality published by Harper