In which comedian John Mulaney uses behavioral economics to subject customers of a Chicago diner to effective sonic torment

Go ahead and listen to the clip above from John Mulaney’s 2009 album The Top Part.  This story is the heart of today’s post, and, heck, we could all use more stand-up comedy in our lives.


Reference points can alter whether an experience is painful or pleasurable.  A 15% pay cut will seem wonderful to someone expecting to be fired, but it will be the worst thing ever for the person expecting a modest cost-of-living pay increase.  If you can change someone’s reference point, you can help turn their negative experience into something more tolerable.  Or, alternatively, you can toy with human emotions like so much catnip, as Mulaney did at the Salt and Pepper diner.

The genius in the strategy John and his friend employed has it roots in a puzzle.  It makes sense that after hearing Tom Jones’s “What’s New Pussycat?” seven time in a row, “It’s Not Unusual” would make adult men weep tears of joy.  A painful experience has reached its end, so why not partake in some celebratory crying?  It’s more puzzling, intellectually at least, why the return of “What’s New Pussycat?” should provoke the largest outburst of anger.  Why should a break from “WNP?,” a moment of relative pleasure, make people more irascible than they were before?

Our reference points contain a mixture of the different possibilities we expect to happen.  As the diners at Salt and Pepper hear “WNP?” four times in a row, they being to realize that some punk teenagers are messing with them.  The more times “WNP?” plays on the jukebox, the more people resign themselves to a future where the song continues playing through the end of their meal.  Their reference point for how enjoyable their steak and eggs dining experience will be plummets.  It’s still painful when Tom Jones bellows out the same opening refrain, but this pain is tempered by the expectation that it was doomed to happen.

Until the easy listening chords of “It’s Not Unusual” come over the speakers, that is.  When this happens, people become convinced that they made it through this trial.  They can finally sip their instant coffee in relative peace!  Reference points rise as everyone expects a string of new songs to come out of the jukebox.  But this expectation will not align with their reality.

When “What’s New Pussycat?” comes on once again, Mulaney’s day goes “from good to great.”  But for everyone else, for the people who thought they had finished serving their time, the familiar chorus is devastating.  It’s bad enough to hear the song again, but the painful kicker comes from comparing the experience to a pussycat-free reference point, a future where Mulaney had exhausted his stack of quarters after seven plays.  Pairing another “What’s New Pussycat” with heightened expectations reaps unadulterated agony.

This dynamic holds true for musical experiences that don’t involve Tom Jones.  Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 orchestral concert The Rite of Spring drove Parisian audiences into a near-riot because it was so avant-garde that people couldn’t anticipate what was coming next.  With expectations subverted, dissonance served up in place of melody, brawls ensued.  Changing musical reference points eventually solved Igor’s problem, as later audiences actually enjoyed the music from The Rite Disney lifted for Fantasia.

Similarly, if you’re torturing someone for intelligence purposes rather than sport—neither of which we condone, it’s worth emphasizing—you don’t play one song ad infinitum.  You splice together Metallica with songs from Barney and Sesame Street.  You inject seemingly pleasant silence just to screw with expectations, as this 99% spoiler-free clip from Homeland’s first season illustrates.  The brief reprieve makes the overall experience more painful, just as “It’s Not Unusual” only teed up the rage that followed.

For those of us who don’t want to torture people, the constructive point from all of this is that when you have to deliver a negative experience to someone, help them get accustomed to it.  Lower their reference point.  Don’t deliver false hope.

If I’m calling your customer service hotline and you might have to transfer my call three times, let me know at the outset.  If you don’t, I’ll get upset the second time somebody picks up the phone, promising an end to the droning about my valuable time, only to put me back on hold and transfer me to yet another representative.  If there’s a mechanical problem with my airplane, acknowledge the worst-case delay right off the bat.  All of us at the gate will be more upset when you promise us “just 30 more minutes” four times than if you had given us a two hour delay once.

In our initial post on this topic, we said that reference points give us the ability to cope with negative experiences and get on with our lives.  They make us resilient in the face of adversity.  The caveat we didn’t mention is that this only works in situations where we can anticipate how bad things are going to get.  If our minds can’t figure out the pattern of the pain, our reference points won’t adapt to our new reality.  Our expectations will just jitter erratically.  We’ll get our hopes up only to be devastated when “What’s New Pussycat?” makes its triumphant, inevitable return to the top of the jukebox queue.

Anyone interested in developing empathy for the customers of the Salt and Pepper Diner should check out the playlist below.  BSE is not liable for any resulting anguish.

Photo:  Flickr