Suppose you’re playing a game of tennis at dusk. The game field, and your possible physical movements, are bounded by the tennis court parameters and the obstacle of the net over which you need to return the ball each time. Your actions, reactions and planning are guided by what you see. But that is not the whole picture. To play and plan you also use your past experience of the game of tennis and your knowledge of tennis strokes and tactics.
As dusk falls and darkness begins to take hold however to continue to play you rely on everything you know of how a tennis ball reacts in a tennis court environment. That is your past knowledge. When you combine that past knowledge with the increasing uncertainty of your current situation you are utilizing what neuroscientists call a Bayesian integration in the brain that allows you to make a guess at where the tennis ball will be based upon your belief of how it operates in response to specific tennis strokes.
In my example, as uncertainty of your current situation increases, everything you do next depends entirely upon your belief of how things work and your expectation. Your expectation is based upon your belief of how things work to help you guess where, probably, the tennis ball should be.
Now, suppose, you manage to still play a decent game, despite the gloom that makes it really hard to see the tennis ball. Both you and your partner soft-lob and play straight shots until you both decide it’s time to call it quits. What will have happened in that scenario is that your expectations of reality will have received validation and this will go into your greater bank of knowledge of how the world works in general.
The World Is What We Think It Is
You can see, I hope, some things revealed here. First, the game of tennis in the gloom happened as expected not because you and your tennis partner responded, primarily, to environmental stimulus and visual feedback. The latter was sparse and the former only secondary. Instead, you both used top-down cognitive functions to navigate a reality that was happening in real time.
Psychologists call this a set. Tennis analogy association notwithstanding, a set is a “a group of expectations that shape experience by making people especially sensitive to specific kinds of information.” But it isn’t as simple as our willing the world to bend to our belief system and produce what we expect to see. Instead something even more complex and marvellous takes place.
Our sense report the environment we are in. But even on a good day they do so imperfectly. Playing tennis in the dusk the amount of error reported by our senses only increases. To compensate for that our brain calculates the position of the tennis ball and its velocity using whatever meager sensory information it has and then it also uses all of the experience and knowledge we posses to synthesize a positional strategy that is the average of everything we know, have experienced and are experiencing during the game of tennis.
Statisticians call this Bayesian Statistics and it’s an action that involves creating approximations that aim for that middle ground or “sweet spot” where the greatest number of probabilities intersect. The logic behind the approach is that the more probabilities cross that “sweet spot” the greater the odds that the swing of your tennis racket will hit the tennis ball and send it back to your tennis partner so you can continue playing in the dusk.
While this may sound like a reactive response to a tricky situation where the brain becomes a super-calculating machine the reality is a little different.
"The brain is an anticipatory machine."
The World Also Is What We Predict It To Be
The brain is an anticipatory machine. It is programmed to do one thing and one thing only: predict the next moment. It does that in order to help us survive. That simple prime directive is responsible behind the complexity of our pro-social behavior, complex civilization, massive cities and nations and technological advances.
We thirst for information. Or rather our brain does. Predictions are based on beliefs. Beliefs then guide expectations. Expectation guides perception to the point that we may not “see” what our sense report because we didn’t expect it to be there.
This begs several questions, but the obvious one is “when do we see more of the reality that is versus the reality that we expect to see?” The answer to that is when we are paying attention. When the gap between our expectations and perception is small we have a high level of trust in our situation and the modalities of Reliability, Responsiveness and Assurance both in ourselves and others are easy to calculate.
When the gap between our expectations and perception is large however the modalities of Reliability, Responsiveness and Assurance are also affected and trust levels drop.
How Expectations Affect Consumer Behavior
Let’s take all of this now into a marketing environment. Let’s recall that perception is the means through which we identify, organize and interpret information in order to create meaning. In other words, make sense of the world.
Because paying attention is an energy-intensive task a brand offers a promise to its customers that meets their expectations and reduces the cognitive energy load required for them to make a decision.
In that context, reliability, responsiveness and assurance are virtually guaranteed. Playing tennis in the dark (our analogy) becomes easy. By the same token anything that disrupts the perception of a customer by failing to meet their expectation (in terms of messaging, website feel and look, ease of purchase, range of choice etc) only makes it harder for them to make the conversion from website visitor to paying customer.
But this is not the whole story.
How Expectations Affect Decision Making
MIT neuroscientists carried out research to track the way neurons activated in the brain, trigger perception. What they found was that when expectations are not being met in a specific situation the brain uses past experience to guide perception.
What this means is that brands that have already spent time and energy creating a connection, history and shared journey with their customers enjoy leeway when it comes to how their service is perceived. In cases of system failure, when an experience does not meet expectations and delivers negative results, their customers will use their previous experience of the brand to interpret it.
This is why established brands, in general, enjoy an easier ride when it comes to the all-important customer experience rating, even when they get it wrong and why new brands have to work at least twice as hard to achieve the same perception effect.
How To Help Your Customers Buy From You
Amazing and insightful as all this might be it only becomes relevant to us when we ask the right question: How can I help my potential customers buy from me?
We know, already, that people only do business with people (and businesses) they trust. Trust, in turn, we begin to realize requires expectations to be met quickly and with a minimum of effort on the part of the potential customer. Trust is an emergent phenomenon as well as a human tendency. This makes it complicated.
Lucky for you it is not complex. At least not as complex you might think it is. So here’s the laundry list of items you’ve been looking for:
- Personal - perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, and values can substantially influence a potential customer’s experience and involvement with products. The importance and relevance that a product or a brand holds in the customer’s mind depends upon their perception of how it fulfils their need. Culture plays a part here, alongside social perception factors, which we discuss on the last item of this list.
- Informational – expectations are partly formed by the potential customer’s perception of how suitable a product is for them. The amount of information available to them, then is key to guiding part of their perception.
- Contextual – brands whose products and services that seamlessly fit in with a customer’s lifestyle, resonate deeper with them and make it easier for them to make a purchase decision and remain loyal, later. Taking into account the context of what you offer requires you to exercise empathy for those who will see it, when they see it.
- Social – Consumer behavior is deeply affected by social influence. This includes an individual’s social network, social perception of a brand and its products and services. In the wider context of culture the broader social perception of a brand’s values and mission can play a critical role on how consumers exercise their purchasing choices.
So, does your business meet these requirements?
- Marshel JH, Kim YS, Machado TA, et al. Cortical layer-specific critical dynamics triggering perception. Science. 2019;365(6453):eaaw5202. doi:10.1126/science.aaw5202