Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Wealth

How You Can Make Your Favorite Coffee Shop Better

By Oren Shapira, Alex Shaw

Many of us have a strong bond with our coffee. We can’t start the day without it, we need it to get us through the day, and no other drink gives us quite the same satisfaction. Many of us also develop a similar bond to a specific coffee shop – nowhere feels quite like our favorite spot. What makes us want to return to the same coffee shop day after day? Obviously, the features of a coffee shop (for example, quality of the coffee, location, and type of music played) affect how we respond to a coffee shop. However, a new study investigates whether we may also influence our coffee shop experience. More specifically, can the way we treat our baristas subtly shape our own sense of belongingness to the place and our ability to start up the morning with a feeling of purpose?

Image: © 2011 Wikipedia Commons

To test this question, graduate student (now post-doc) Gillian M. Sandstrom and NPP member Prof. Elizabeth Dunn from the University of British Columbia at Vancouver ran an experiment at a local Starbucks. They approached costumers who were about to enter the coffee shop and asked the ones who volunteered for the study to interact with the barista in one of two ways. In the social condition, participants were instructed to “have a genuine interaction with the cashier,” involving smiling, making eye contact, and a brief conversation. In contrast, participants in the efficient condition were instructed to make the interaction “as efficient as possible,” having the money prepared in advance and avoiding unnecessary conversation.

How did treating the barista in these two different ways affect participants’ own experience at the coffee shop? The researchers explored this question by surveying the participants as they were exiting the shop. The results showed that those in the social condition reported a stronger sense of belonging to the coffee shop, felt more positive emotions, and were more satisfied with their Starbucks experience compared to participants in the efficient condition. Thus, participants were able to enhance their own experience at the coffee shop by making a small effort to engage in a real human interaction with the person who made their coffee.

Why did such a minor interaction with a relative stranger influence customers’ experience so positively? The authors suggest a straightforward but profound explanation – we have a basic need to belong. Even small interactions like these can satisfy this need, at least temporarily, making us feel both at home and generally happier. Of course, there is no reason to expect that this would be only true for coffee shops. Every day, we have numerous interactions with people who give us services (like bus drivers and secretaries) or just happen to occupy the same space (like cubical neighbors). While it may sometimes feel inefficient to take a minute to interact with another person, it is easy to see how adding some “inefficient” chit- chat could be just the pick-me-up you need on your path to purpose.


Oren Shapira is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.
Alex Shaw is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Wealth

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