Singapore Airlines announced recently that it will begin flying all-business-class flights across the Pacific—Newark-to-Singapore started in May, and Los Angeles-to-Singapore will start in September. The demand for business class seats is apparently enormous, so this new venture sounds like it makes perfect economic sense. But the psychological scientist in me wonders whether, at the end of the day, this will prove to be such a good idea.
The reason for my hesitation: As a growing body of research shows, people adapt quickly and easily to anything positive that happens to them. When you move into a beautiful new apartment with a view; when you obtain 20/20 vision through LASIK; when you buy a hip new hybrid; even when you tie the knot, you get an immediate boost of happiness from your new and improved circumstances, but unfortunately that thrill only lasts a short time. Over the coming days, weeks, and months, you find yourself taking your new apartment, eyesight, car, and marriage completely and utterly for granted.
In a theory developed with my colleague Ken Sheldon, I argue that several important factors play a role in this natural adaptation process. With apologies to the University of Virginia, the acronym is UVA: Unexpectedness, Variety, and Attention. We adapt more slowly, and experience greater pleasure, when a positive experience, such as a job, car, or flight to Singapore, is: 1) full of surprises; 2) variable; and 3) commands our attention and appreciation. This last factor is what Singapore Airlines should carefully take into account.
Here’s why: One of the primary reasons we relish business-class travel is that it makes us feel so special. This sense of privilege is enhanced when we observe the envious looks on the plebeians trudging by us on their way to their cramped and curtained-off coach-class seats. Indeed, every time we catch a glimpse of the coach section, or their long line to board, we feel a burst of positive feeling—delight, contentment, self-satisfaction, and old-fashioned pride.
So what will happen when the entire flight is business class? Travelers will lose that feeling of specialness. Even more important, they will lose the critical comparison: “Sure, this flight is a mind-numbing 19 hours, but it could have been so much worse." Psychological scientists have reliably established that people would rather have a poorer outcome, as long as others are even worse off. For example, students prefer to have a job in which they earn $50,000 per year while everyone else earns $25,000 than a job in which they earn $100,000 per year and everyone else earns $250,000.
It’s irrational, but it’s also human.
So, I wonder: In a year’s time, will the airline end up reinstating a few rows of coach? After all, those rows would give business-class travelers back the worse-off economy-class comparison, so that their attention during the flight is intermittently drawn to how much more comfort, leg room, and free cocktails they've received. In the end, that might make for more satisfied—and more loyal—customers.