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Perk Backlash: Do Surprise Upgrades Make Us Uneasy?

Whether it's a free upgrade on a hotel room or skipping ahead in the check-in line, many businesses give preferential treatment to some customers, hoping to make them more loyal. The practice often works — but a new study suggests that when we get perks we didn't earn, negative feelings can result. And they can make a surprise deal a little less sweet.

That's the gist of a study to be published later this year in the Journal of Consumer Research, with the forthright title "Consumer Reaction to Unearned Preferential Treatment."

"The current research demonstrates that, although receiving unearned preferential treatment does generate positive reactions, it is not always an entirely pleasurable experience," write the study's authors, Lan Jiang, Joandrea Hoegg, and Darren W. Dahl.

The displeasing aspects of a treat tend to peak, they write, when the perks are given in public, in front of other customers who are no different than the recipient of the business's generosity.

"We propose that receiving something that others have just as much right to receive can activate concerns about negative evaluations, reducing the satisfaction with the preferential treatment," write the researchers, who teach marketing at business schools at the University of Oregon and the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

The study's authors found that "satisfaction with receiving preferential treatment can be restored if the observer who does not receive such treatment reacts positively to the recipient's good fortune or if the observer is of a higher status than the recipient."

That's right. The test subjects enjoyed "the positive experience of 'beating' a superior'" so much, the authors say, that it brought "increased overall satisfaction."

It also helps if nobody's looking. To test that theory, the researchers conducted experiments to test "feelings of social discomfort" and try to determine where they come from. They found that even in the most seemingly fair context — a random drawing — the winner felt best about it if they were alone.

All of the tests placed participants in situations in which one person received a surprise bonus. In one case, a booth that was dispensing free product samples suddenly gave one subject more than the others. That was welcomed — especially if no one else was around.

"It's like they wanted to get out of there," co-author JoAndrea Hoegg tells The Globe and Mail. "It's the fear of negative evaluation. If you're getting something you don't deserve, you're thrilled – as long as no one is watching you."

All of this isn't meant to imply that businesses should stop giving people free perks, the researchers say. The trick is to be sure all customers know the deal — and why they're not getting it. Other options include using scratch-off game tabs and loyalty emails, which can be kept private, to connect with customers.

Such steps, they say, "would minimize the potential for negative emotions."

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