Small Surprise, Big Mood Change


What does it take to make you happy? Not much. A classic study by psychologist Norbert Schwarz found that ten cents would do the trick. He and his cohorts repeatedly placed a dime near a copy machine where they knew it would be found. When the subjects who found the dime were surveyed shortly after their discovery, their overall satisfaction with life was substantially higher than other subjects who did not find a coin.

While the original study was conducted back in 1987 when a dime bought more than it does today, the basic idea remains the same: even a tiny positive surprise can improve one’s outlook, albeit temporarily. In an interview with the Baltimore Sun, Schwarz noted, “It’s not the value of what you find. It’s that something positive happened to you.”

Food Works Too

The same article in the Baltimore Sun described a similar effect using a food sample: “Another study asked people leaving a grocery store to evaluate only their satisfaction with their TVs back home… Those who minutes earlier got a free sample of food from the store liked their TVs better than those who missed the sample.”

Branding Implications

While these results may be fascinating for academics who study the psychology of happiness, what are the takeways for marketers? The biggest, I think, is that one has the opportunity to create an association of improved mood with a brand if a small positive surprise can be delivered at the same time. And it doesn’t have to be a total surprise – receiving a food sample at a grocery store isn’t a shocking occurrence.

I’m sure Neuromarketing readers can come up with a host of ways to create a small, positive surprise, but here are a few that came to my mind immediately:

  • Sampling, but with clear brand identity. Sampling is fairly pervasive these days in supermarkets and wholesale stores, but often the brand identity is lost in the shuffle. Sampling in a venue not already flooded with sampling stations, ensuring that the display shows the brand, and training the attendant to mention the brand by name would do the trick.
  • Surprise in the box. Product makers could include a small, inexpensive free accessory or promotional item in the product package. Obviously, putting “free ___ inside!” on the outside of the box would kill any surprise. But, calling the item a “free gift” inside the box would emphasize that it is of some value or utility and likely enhance the surprise.

Have YOU found a way to surprise your customers?

Creepy Footnote: I was researching this article at Starbucks, and was amused to see the Sun article include the comment, “Amazing how a mouthful of free lemon pound cake can improve your life…” Literally minutes before reading that eleven-year old article, the Starbucks barista had surprised ME by giving me a slice of, you guessed it, LEMON POUND CAKE. (Apparently, the cake was actually a gift of an earlier patron who wanted to treat fellow coffee lovers, rather than a targeted mood-enhancement by Starbucks neuromarketing wizards.)

  1. Douglas Thomas Wallace says

    Interesting article. The ending makes me want to pay for the guy behind me’s coffee the next time I’m in a Starbucks.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I’m sure that guy’s mood would improve, Douglas! Watch for me in line behind you…


  2. Lowri Davies says

    A well known UK gadget/gimmick gift website include a small pack of gummy sweets (or candy for US readers)inside their parcels. Every time I order I look forward to the resulting sugar fix. The sweets are unnannounced and retail at only 10 pence each but it keeps me sweet (shameless pun intended)!

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Their strategy is working on two levels, Lowri. First, there was the pleasant surprise when you got your first order. Then, even after the surprise factor wears off on subsequent shipments, there’s still the “sugar reward” to keep your brain happy.


  3. Steven | The Emotion Machine says

    This reminds me a bit of a chapter in “Predictably Irrational” which described the alluring effects of “FREE.” We love getting things without having to put in effort or money. It’s probably a big release in dopamine.

  4. Roger Dooley says

    Good point, Steven. I wrote about the Power of FREE! a while ago, and I agree there could be common ground between the effects.


  5. Gabriele Maidecchi says

    The “gift” mechanics always worked in marketing products. I remember when I was a kid and I used to go with my mom shopping for groceries, and I “forced” her to buy products in which I knew I would find a little gift or surprise.
    It’s kind of a circle, ’cause the more successful are the brands performing such operations, the more money they will have to invest in them.

  6. Verilliance says

    The “creepy footnote” was awesome.

  7. Naomi Niles says

    This is one of the reasons I think doing small surprises for people is important. They remember and associate you with it. And well, it’s just fun to do every once in awhile. As long as you don’t go too far with it and make them feel obligated in a negative way, of course. I’ve found small is usually better.

    Speaking of samples at grocery stores, I always wondered why they often don’t give you the samples closer to the actual product location. If I try a sausage sample near the entrance of the door, it’s pretty likely I’ll forget about it before I reach the meat section.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Most stores DO try to place product to purchase right by the sample station, Naomi, but I agree that those who don’t are missing out on sales. Nothing worse than saying, “Hey, that’s pretty good, can I buy some?” and being told, “I think they are in Aisle 11, somewhere in the middle.” Total loss of sales momentum.


  8. Kevin W. Grossman says

    This gave me some great ideas! Thank you and Happy New Year. No wonder my wife and I love going to Costco when all the sample tables are hoppin’.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Haha, Kevin, that could be as simple as a Pavlovian food reward. Go to Costco at the right time, get fed. My local favorites for “store d’oeuvres” are HEB (a grocery chain) and Sam’s Club. I’m sure I start salivating when I see the first tray of samples!


  9. Andrea Mercado says

    Love the article. It has me thinking about what small surprise gifts we can include with our services. Hmmmmm!!! This could be fun!

  10. Amelinda says

    law of attrection on the creepy note 🙂

  11. Jay Rosenberg says

    Hi, Roger — Really spot on. Beautifully written. All the best, Jay

  12. […] is that they don’t have to be significant in order to have a recognizable reaction in people. A study by psychologist Norbert Schwartz helped show this. Schwartz and his colleagues placed a dime near a […]

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