What we wanted to know

Frustration describes the emotional state we find ourselves in when we try to reach a goal only to find an obstacle in our path that temporarily or permanently thwarts our progress. Imagine, for example, that you’ve spent a couple of hours painstakingly picking out and wish listing the perfect gift for a loved one, only to get to the checkout to find your basket empty and needing to start again from scratch. Frustrating right?

These obstacles can come in all shapes and sizes, and so can our responses to encountering them.

Our study observed a range of frustrating scenarios - some minor, some extreme. Paying extra for a speedy delivery so that a wedding outfit arrives on time but then finding it arrives too late is an example of something insurmountable and therefore very frustrating. Such extremely frustrating scenarios are vividly imagined by the brain and can cause strong emotional reactions. That is exactly what we wanted to measure.

The methodology used for the experiment is explained in detail below - be warned, this is where it gets really scientific!

We gathered seven healthy volunteers to take part in an encephalography (EEG) experiment, as well as measuring heart responses using an electrocardiogram (ECG)** alongside self-reported behavioral data to put a wide variety of frustrating scenarios to the test. Each volunteer was fitted with 64 electrodes evenly distributed across their scalp surface, helping our psychologists and neuroscientist to effectively “eavesdrop” on the mass action of millions of electrical messages being sent from one part of the brain to another at over 200 mph.

Each of the 36 different types of frustrating scenarios were shown to our volunteers on a screen in three parts, for instance:

  • First, setting the scene - You’ve ordered a new vacuum cleaner online
  • Next, the prelude to frustration - You’ve rearranged your whole week to wait in for the delivery
  • Finally, the obstacle preventing you from reaching your goal - At the end of the day you receive a message saying that the driver couldn’t find your address so the package was returned to the depot

The pattern of the electrical signals created by the human brain’s 86 billion neurons follows the narrative of this three-stage scenario, revealing what happens and the extent of frustration in the brain in the final part.

We observed how frustrating the volunteers thought each scenario was by scoring them on a scale of 1-7 (1 being no frustration and 7 being extreme frustration). Why? So we could understand personal perception compared to how frustration plays out in the brain, as well as understanding how often they’re faced with that type of situation, and importantly, how likely they’d be to persist in trying to reach their goal, rather than just giving up.

The results showed a clear pattern. The level of activity seen in the brain in response to these stimuli is significantly correlated to the nature of the scenario.

Not only was high frustration associated with robust changes in EEG - most conspicuous in terms of large percentage changes in the high frequency gamma band (30- 50 Hz) - but retail scenarios also produced more high-frequency gamma band responses than non-retail scenarios. This tells us that under these circumstances on a neurological level, our brain’s memory, attention and emotional processes are heightened.

So which retail experiences are likely to leave you so frustrated you'll avoid returning to that online retailer again?

Find out by taking our retail ranter quiz.