What Really Drives Us

When I was in my twenties I spent a couple of years at the ticket office of a dance club. Young men and women ready to sweat their Saturday night off used to line up in front of me, and purchase their entrance to the hall.

Every Friday, the owner of the club used to send out a coupon code to his newsletter. Just presenting that coupon, people were getting a discount on the entrance fee. Instead of 12 bucks, they only had to pay 10.

Signing up for the newsletter was free and besides sending the coupon every week, it didn’t serve any other purpose.

Pretty much all the regular customers had their coupon ready when they showed up in front of me, and the line moved fast.

However, it happened that someone had forgotten to print their coupon, and then panic ensued. I had people begging, yelling, arguing, but the rule was the rule, and I could only grant that little discount when the coupon was present.

Every night, at least one person who had forgotten their coupon, went back to the car, returned home, printed the coupon, and came back. At that point, I kindly gave them a discount on the entry fee, and they were happy to join their friends.

Fast forward almost 20 years.

Yesterday I was in Naples, Italy, with my family. We were Christmas shopping in the busy city center and we looked for a place to have lunch.

We finally settled for a steakhouse, and we booked a table. The place was clean, modern, quiet. We got great food, even better than expected. The service was fast, kind, professional. It was all just perfect.

On the way out I went to the counter and settled our tab. The price was ok, not too expensive, not cheap either.

But a few steps out of the door, I realized that they rounded the final price on the credit card. The receipt says 136.90 and they charged 137.00 on my Amex.

As of today, twenty-four hours later, I’m still bitter about it. I had excellent food, great service, and a great time, but those ten cents of malicious rounding are driving me off.

I won’t go back, nor recommend that steakhouse to others in the future.

For years, I could not figure out how someone could waste an hour of their life, especially on a Saturday night, to head back home, print a piece of paper, and come back, to save 2 bucks on a ticket for a dance club.

But now I know the reason.

Forgetting your coupon makes you feel stupid, as much as getting ten cents deliberately overcharged on your credit card.

Going home and fixing the coupon is a way to redeem yourself and be at peace with your feelings. The same that will make me avoid that steakhouse in the future, depriving myself of that amazing food.

It’s not about the money, it’s about how we feel about it.

Published by Luca Sartoni

I lead three teams of engineers across four continents at Automattic. I love hiking, photography, and 3D printers.

One thought on “What Really Drives Us

  1. We are under the governance of pain and pleasure. You reward yourself with pleasure in the first case (driving back to print the coupons). In the second, you will receive pain caused by the lost opportunity.

    Your steakhouse experience reminded me of Peak-End Theory.

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