Study: Extra Rewards Make Customers Feel Guilty

Robert S. Donovan (cc)

It’s generally a great idea to “wow” your customers with unexpected benefits and perks–but a new study finds there’s also an unexpected downside to such preferential treatment.

Anna S. Mattila of The Pennsylvania State University, Lydia Hanks of The Florida State University, and Lu Zhang of The Pennsylvania State University published “Existential Guilt and Preferential Treatment: The Case of an Airline Upgrade,” forthcoming in the Journal of Travel Research (JTR) and now available in the journal’s OnlineFirst section. The abstract:

jtrUsing the context of an unexpected airline upgrade, we examined factors that influence an individual’s reaction when they are overrewarded compared to others: guilt-proneness and relationship to the other, underrewarded, individuals. Results demonstrated that for individuals high in guilt-proneness, satisfaction with the upgrade and behavioral intent may be qualified by a feeling of existential guilt when they receive benefits that others do not, particularly if they have a close relationship with those others. Our results extend the research in advantageous inequality by showing that people high in guilt-proneness tend to have a heightened sensitivity to such injustices. Our findings also have important implications for the hospitality, airline, and travel industries: for customers high in guilt-proneness, receiving an expected upgrade may, in fact, have unintended negative results. Managers can use this information to make employees aware of the potential detrimental effects of rewarding or upgrading only one member of a party.

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