Tag Archives: psychology

COVID-19 Risk and Buyers’ Psychology

Despite all the attention devoted to the continuing devastation from COVID-19, compliance with mitigation measures is not turning out to be universal. Even public officials have been bending the rules. Indeed, a recent study from the U.K.-based behavioral science consultancy Dectech found that nearly a third of those surveyed had spent time with someone outside of their household despite restrictions on such socializing.

Similarly, many families are underinsured, suggesting that perhaps they do not see the value of such financial protection, or do not understand their risk in not having it.

Is the problem that people just don’t understand the risks of this pandemic, or is the issue with risk in general?

A handful of studies published since the summer have examined the psychology of how the public perceives the pandemic’s risks. What can these results tell us about the public’s perception of COVID-19 risk, and how can this information help insurers understand consumer mindsets and needs?

Understanding the threat of COVID-19

When people understand that a reasonable threat exists they will generally be more likely to take actions to avoid it. This was shown to be the case during 2014’s avian flu epidemic, and COVID-19 research has consistently been telling a similar story — the larger the threat people feel, the more likely they are to take protective measures such as washing hands, wearing masks, social distancing and even panic shopping.

But the bigger challenge may well be the public’s sense of the threat in the first place. In one U.S. study, half of the respondents substantially underestimated their risk of dying if infected. Perhaps more worryingly, older respondents and individuals with underlying health conditions also underestimated the virus’s potential threat despite understanding that they were at higher risk than the population average.

See also: How to Leverage Behavioral Science

A well-established finding from behavioral economics is that humans are often poor at understanding their own risk objectively. For example, a majority of people implausibly believe they are better than average drivers, and many also believe their chances of avoiding cancer are better than other people’s, despite no objective basis for the belief. This comparative optimism — the belief that negative events are more likely to happen to others — might also explain how people are perceiving the risk of COVID-19. A study early in the current pandemic on perceived risk and self-reported personal behavior conducted by researchers at the California Institute of Technology found that participants perceived a high level of risk to the general population but tended to rate themselves as being at lower risk than the average person. This perception was not influenced by whether the respondents were actually at lower risk than average.

This finding, replicated by a group of researchers from the U.K., U.S., Europe and Australia using the U.K. data, also suggests that, despite the inescapable factual information available about COVID-19, people still believe “it won’t happen to me.”

Perhaps most interesting is the finding that factors beyond objective facts influence COVID-19 risk perception. According to a study from the University of Cambridge of almost 7,000 individuals in 10 different countries, although participants had relatively high threat perception, men, who are statistically far more likely to die from COVID-19, were less likely to report feeling threatened by the pandemic than women. The researchers also found that risk perception can be amplified by how a person’s friends and family are perceiving the risk and by their having existing prosocial values (values that promote behavior benefiting society as a whole). The Cambridge study also showed that the most powerful predictor of COVID-19 risk perception was direct personal experience with the disease.

Clearly, despite all the objective information we have at our disposal, visceral experiences — i.e., concrete evidence obtained and interpreted through our own senses, emotions and social interactions — and existing attitudes are powerful drivers of people’s reactions to external threats.

Is risk knowledge or a feeling?

These studies paint a picture of reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic that are consistent with psychologists’ view of risk perception: Perceiving a threat may push people to take action, but perceiving a threat accurately is not guaranteed. While perception of COVID-19 risk is relatively high on the scales used in the studies, it is still underestimated and subject to biases such as over-optimism and social influence, and context such as pre-existing worldview, direct personal experience and gender identity.

Risk, to humans, is subjective — fundamentally about what one is feeling. Fear, disgust and the prospect of guilt and regret turn people away from danger, and, when not sure how to respond, humans look to other people’s behavior and their own expectations for answers. This is how people experience the world first-hand, and this experience, rather than objective facts, frequently dominates judgments and decisions.

To understand the physical effects of COVID-19, seeing someone in a hospital bed who is either intubated or on mechanical ventilation is likely to have a far more powerful visceral effect on a person than case numbers. People can empathize with the horror of the situation and grasp the risk in a way that knowledge of the numbers just cannot achieve.

Perhaps this was the idea behind one U.K. city’s campaign to promote compliance with COVID-19 restrictions. Its shocking slogan, “Don’t Kill Grandma,” sought to elicit an emotional response to promote a personal understanding of COVID-19’s risks rather than presenting statistics and then expecting a highly rational and analytical response.

Communicating to inspire protective action

Should communicators use shock tactics such as fear appeals to help people gain an appropriate understanding of risk? One of the most widely discussed uses of fear appeals, i.e., tactics designed to elicit emotional discomfort and motivate particular responses, are the campaigns to push smoking cessation. Cigarette packets in the U.S. are required to display warning messages, and in the U.K. must have both warning language and harrowing images of the physical effects of smoking, in the hopes that user exposure to these horrifying images may promote behavior change.

Fear appeals can be effective, but there are serious caveats. Overly shocking communications can make people disengage and ignore or react defensively to the intended message altogether. Finding the right balance of engaging emotions while sustaining people’s attention is vital for risk communicators. In particular, being able to show that a risk is personally relevant and that one’s own actions can minimize the danger of a particular risk are key elements of making fear appeal messages work.

Insurance marketers face a similar challenge in persuading consumers to protect their assets and finances. It can be off-putting to communicate risk by scaring potential customers. Also, the industry is dominated by a highly objective and numbers-based understanding of risk, but, as the COVID-19 research shows, people do not usually think of risk statistically.

See also: COVID and Power of Personal Connections

Insurers can learn from the COVID-19 research that, while it is difficult for people to appreciate intangible risks, communicating risk in terms of lived experiences, whether their own or that of others, might be a powerful tactic. From this perspective, it is unsurprising that insurance sales increase in response to emotively striking but objectively unimportant events, such as widely reported floods leading to increased insurance demand in unaffected areas, and the death of Kobe Bryant generating a spike in life insurance sales. For insurers, this might mean finding ways to approach customers at moments when risk events are salient and emotionally resonant — when such events and people’s interactions with the information are spurring thinking about caring for their families, health and homes. These could be important opportunities for demonstrating the value of insurance products.

COVID-19 communications and insurance marketing share a conundrum. Objective risk for humans is often intangible. Insurers seek to understand and communicate health and financial risk objectively, but also need to acknowledge that customers might not receive that objective message. Exposing the risk by creating or exploring feelings that resonate with lived experience, identity and expectations are going to count for far more than just bare facts.

How to Choose a Great Coach

The Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM) published a report titled “Coaching for Success: The key ingredients for coaching delivery and coach recruitment.” There’s plenty of interesting snippets of research findings and practical advice.

If you have time, it is well worth a read, but the points that caught my eye were a three-stage process for coach selection. I agree with the ILM that the selection of coaches often still lacks a robust structured process and so am going to share their recommended process as a good example.

This process can be used by individuals for themselves or by someone selecting on behalf of an organization. It assumes that a long list of possible coaches has already been found. To achieve that, you could go as Wild West as a general Google search on “coach”/”leadership coach”/”executive coach.” However, I’d recommend starting with a pre-qualified list like the Association for Coaching (AfC) directory of coaches or equivalents from other coaching bodies.

Here are the stages that the ILM recommends, to be used like a checklist of questions to ask (I’ve added what I’d say if asked):

Stage 1: Long-list to Short-list

  • What experience of coaching does the coach have? (I could evidence my number of coaching hours and cite previous mentoring experience within a large corporation)
  • Can the coach demonstrate an understanding of the leadership challenges in your industry? (I’ve found some clients value my experience in customer insight leadership or within the insurance industry)
  • What training do they have? (I could evidence my ILM Level 7 qualification in Executive Coaching and Mentoring)
  • What ethical standards do they work to? (I share with clients a copy of the AfC code of ethics and explain that I abide by that)
  • What supervision does the coach have in place? (I use AfC/University of South Wales co-coaching forums)

Stage 2: Getting down to the last few

  • What coaching methodologies does the coach use, when and why? (my primary tools are active listening, Socratic questioning, goal-oriented models and, where relevant, positive psychology tools like Strength Finders)
  • What price do they charge? (average fees can vary around the country, but between £100-250 per hour is typical; I normally charge £150 per hour)

Stage 3: Final selection

  • What does the coach he can achieve for the individual coachee/client? (this is where a free introductory meeting can help me clarify where I may be able to help or if another intervention other than coaching might help more)
  • What do they believe they can achieve for the organization? (it’s always worth doing your homework on an organization and discussing context with a client, before you can offer a view on this)
  • Will the coach and the coachee/client get on? (at the end of the day, a lot comes down to personal chemistry, so I will meet up for a chat over a coffee and let us both assess if we feel it can work)

I hope you find that helpful, especially if you are facing this challenge. The ILM also suggests that competency frameworks from leading global coaching bodies can help, but I like the clear simplicity of the above list.

Has anyone found another approach to selecting a coach worked for them? Please share your experience.

Fascinating Patent Filing by State Farm

Sometimes other drivers can make you crazy. Maybe you’ve gestured to boneheaded motorists, safe in the anonymity of your car and the flow of traffic. Perhaps you’ve let your anger at other drivers get the best of you at times because there’s no one else in the car to judge.

But State Farm is on the case. It has developed plans to monitor your every move while you’re driving, measure your emotions, detect angry behavior and deliver stimuli such as music to calm you down.

The plans, as revealed in a patent application, would combine biometric measurements with automotive data to create a “total impairment score” that could be used to set customized car insurance rates.

“Every year, many vehicle accidents are caused by impaired vehicle operation,” State Farm says in its application, recently filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. “One common kind of impaired vehicle operation is agitated, anxious or aggressive driving.”

Are you sweating, yelling or waving your arms while you drive? State Farm’s “emotion management system” would use a variety of sensors and cameras to monitor your biometrics, including:

  • Heart rate
  • Grip pressure on the steering wheel
  • Body temperature
  • Arm movement
  • Head direction and movement
  • Vocal amplitude and pattern
  • Respiration rate

The system could use “infrared optical brain imaging data” to get deeper inside your head. State Farm might even know if you’re giving the evil eye to another driver: Measurements include gaze direction and duration, eyelid opening and blink rate.

And impaired driving is not confined to angry and aggressive drivers. State Farm also would consider nervousness, distraction and drowsiness. Other sensors would keep track of your vehicle: Are you swerving, accelerating or driving too close to other objects?

[Compare car insurance quotes through NerdWallet’s Car Insurance Comparison Tool.]

Smell this and calm down

If you are “emotionally impaired” – as measured by State Farm, not your spouse – the patent-pending system would select and deliver stimuli to change your behavior. The patent application outlines a variety of options, including relaxing music, a recorded message, sounds of nature, fragrance or a blast of cold air. The system might even suggest you stop at a coffee shop or scenic overlook.

Robert Nemerovski, a licensed clinical psychologist in the San Francisco area and an expert on anger management and road rage, was skeptical about State Farm’s patent. He questioned whether an automated system could be sophisticated enough to account for the unique characteristics of individual drivers.

“I would be concerned about individual differences: people on medication, the elderly vs. the young,” he said. “Maybe they have PTSD, or they’re in recovery from a heart attack. [State Farm] would need to know nuances of human behavior and human bodies.”

In addition, “People don’t want someone patronizing you or telling you to calm down. I’m not sure it would be successful psychologically because it would be rather annoying,” he says.

state farm patent

State Farm’s depiction of an emotional impairment score on a mobile device, from its patent application.

State Farm envisions an “emotion management system” that goes beyond just monitoring behavior. The system would store profiles for each driver so, for example, it would learn which music might reduce your hard braking or persuade you to stop tailing the car in front of you. This might spell an end to your loud music.

Each time you end a trip, the State Farm system would analyze the data and update your impairment score, which you could check on your mobile device.

Because the purpose of the patent application is only to describe the system, it leaves many unanswered questions, including:

  • How much would it cost per vehicle?
  • Who would pay?
  • How often would you have to refill your fragrance containers?

State Farm, the nation’s largest car insurance provider, declined to comment on specifics of the patent application but provided this statement to NerdWallet: “State Farm is actively innovating in a number of areas that are important to improving how we meet the needs of our customers. The patent  . . . is just one example of State Farm’s innovation. Because of the nature of our innovation work and patent program, we are unable to provide further comments at this time.”

Angry about car insurance bills, too?

According to the application, State Farm is considering applying the “comprehensive impairment level” to car insurance in several ways, including:

  • Adjusting your insurance rate, up or down.
  • Requiring you to buy a minimum amount of auto insurance, or limiting how much it will sell you.
  • Offering you a discount for using the system.
  • Flagging your policy for possible cancellation.

While State Farm’s plans may never be implemented, the carrier clearly has many ambitious ideas about monitoring customer behavior, such as its previously described ideas to price car insurance by the trip and deliver targeted ads based on where you drive.

Many consumers aren’t aware that auto insurers are preparing to unleash a tsunami of such services based on telematics, systems that track your car and driving habits. Progressive was the first to enter the space and dominated it for a while with its Snapshot usage-based insurance program.

“Other big auto insurers don’t want to be in second or third place again,” says Donald Light, director of North America property/casualty insurance for Celent, a research and consulting firm that focuses on information technology in financial services.

“I believe in about five years it will be a standard part of an auto insurance policy,” Light says.  “Insurers will say, ‘If you don’t want to use it that’s fine, too, but we’ll charge you based on not having it.’”

Light sees one large hurdle to State Farm’s emotion-management plan: The company will have to convince state insurance regulators that the emotional impairment scores accurately reflect risk.

“The key qualifier is that these kinds of data have to make actuarial significant difference in the ‘risk’ of different drivers,” Light says. For example, if State Farm wants to charge more based on driver agitation, the company will have to prove that agitation causes crashes.

Nemerovski says State Farm’s emotional management system might appeal to millennials, who are comfortable with the idea of measuring physical and other metrics so they can be improved.

“But I don’t think people would want it to be shoved down their throats,” he says.

Why To-Do Lists Don’t Work

Do you really think Richard Branson and Bill Gates write a long to-do list with prioritized items as A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and on and on?

In my research into time management and productivity best practices, I’ve interviewed more than 200 billionaires, Olympians, straight-A students and entrepreneurs. I always ask them to give me their best time management and productivity advice. And none of them has ever mentioned a to-do list.

There are three big problems with to-do lists:

First, a to-do list doesn’t account for time. When we have a long list of tasks, we tend to tackle those that can be completed quickly, leaving the longer items left undone. Research from the company iDoneThis indicates that 41% of all to-do list items are never completed!

Second, a to-do list doesn’t distinguish between urgent and important. Once again, our impulse is to fight the urgent and ignore the important. (Are you overdue for your next colonoscopy or mammogram?)

Third, to-do lists contribute to stress. In what’s known in psychology as the Zeigarnik effect, unfinished tasks contribute to intrusive, uncontrolled thoughts. It’s no wonder we feel so overwhelmed in the day but fight insomnia at night.

In all my research, there is one consistent theme that keeps coming up:

Ultra-productive people don’t work from a to-do list, but they do live and work from their calendar.

Shannon Miller won seven Olympic medals as a member of the 1992 and 1996 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team, and today she is a busy entrepreneur and author of It’s Not About Perfect. In a recent interview, she told me:

“During training, I balanced family time, chores, schoolwork, Olympic training, appearances and other obligations by outlining a very specific schedule. I was forced to prioritize…To this day, I keep a schedule that is almost minute-by-minute.”

Dave Kerpen is the cofounder of two successful start-ups and a New York Times-best-selling author. When I asked him to reveal his secrets for getting things done, he replied:

“If it’s not in my calendar, it won’t get done. But if it is in my calendar, it will get done. I schedule out every 15 minutes of every day to conduct meetings, review materials, write and do any activities I need to get done. And while I take meetings with just about anyone who wants to meet with me, I reserve just one hour a week for these ‘office hours.'”

Chris Ducker successfully juggles multiple roles as an entrepreneur, best-selling author and host of the New Business Podcast. What did he tell me his secret was?

“I simply put everything on my schedule. That’s it. Everything I do on a day-to-day basis gets put on my schedule. Thirty minutes of social media–on the schedule. Forty-five minutes of email management–on the schedule. Catching up with my virtual team–on the schedule…Bottom line, if it doesn’t get scheduled, it doesn’t get done.”

There are several key concepts to managing your life using your calendar instead of a to-do list:

First, make the default event duration in your calendar only 15 minutes. If you use Google Calendar or the calendar in Outlook, it’s likely that when you add an event to your calendar it is automatically scheduled for 30 or even 60 minutes. Ultra-productive people only spend as much time as is necessary for each task. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is notorious for conducting meetings with colleagues in as little as five minutes. When your default setting is 15 minutes, you’ll automatically discover that you can fit more tasks into each day.

Second, time-block the most important things in your life, first. Don’t let your calendar fill up randomly by accepting every request that comes your way. You should first get clear on your life and career priorities and pre-schedule sacred time-blocks for these items. That might include two hours each morning to work on the strategic plan your boss asked you for. But your calendar should also include time blocks for things like exercise, date night or other items that align with your core life values.

Third, schedule everything. Instead of checking email every few minutes, schedule three times a day to process it. Instead of writing “Call back my sister” on your to-do list, go ahead and put it on your calendar or even better establish a recurring time block each afternoon to “return phone calls.”

That which is scheduled actually gets done.

How much less stress would you feel, and more productive would you be, if you could rip up your to-do list and work from your calendar instead?

social

The Keys to Forming Effective Teams

America loves teams and team players, even outside of sports. What’s not to love? Team players are selfless—they set aside their personal goals and focus their talents on coordinating efforts with their fellow team members to achieve a common goal. Teams personify cooperation and collaboration and synergistic effort. And, of course, we’ve all been taught that teams inevitably generate better outcomes than individuals do.

So it’s good to be on a team, and teams do good work, which means teams and teamwork are iconic realities of life in America—socially, educationally and professionally. It really doesn’t matter whether you are a toddler, a college student, a retail clerk or a corporate executive, today you regularly find yourself slotted onto teams (or onto committees or into small groups) where you are expected to behave like a good team player.

And how does a good team player behave? According to leadership coach Joel Garfinkle, “You just need to be an active participant and do more than your job title states. Put the team’s objectives above yours and take the initiative to get things done without waiting to be asked.” He identifies five characteristics that make a team player great:

  1. Always reliable
  2. Communicates with confidence
  3. Does more than asked
  4. Adapts quickly and easily
  5. Displays genuine commitment

Seems obvious, but think of your most recent team experiences. Were your team members behaving that way? Were you? Not likely, and J. Richard Hackman, a former professor of social and organizational psychology at Harvard University and a leading expert on teams, knows why. When interviewed by Diane Coutou for a 2009 Harvard Business Review article (Why Teams Don’t Work), he said:

Research consistently shows that teams underperform, despite all the extra resources they have. That’s because problems with coordination and motivation typically chip away at the benefits of collaboration.

Problems with coordination and motivation interfering with team collaboration and performance—doesn’t that sound like a rather modest challenge that could be resolved with more effective team management? Sure, to a certain extent. Teams are often too large; they are thoughtlessly staffed (proximity and position rather than proven talents and ability to produce results); and they are routinely launched with murky objectives, vague group member accountabilities and no formal support network for team process management. In other words, most teams don’t meet the five basic conditions Hackman, in his book Leading Teams, said teams require to perform effectively:

  1. Teams must be real. People have to know who is on the team and who is not. It’s the leader’s job to make that clear.
  2. Teams need a compelling direction. Members need to know, and agree on, what they’re supposed to be doing together. Unless a leader articulates a clear direction, there is a real risk that different members will pursue different agendas.
  3. Teams need enabling structures. Teams that have poorly designed tasks, the wrong number or mix of members or fuzzy and unenforced norms of conduct invariably get into trouble.
  4. Teams need a supportive organization. The organizational context—including the reward system, the human resource system and the information system—must facilitate teamwork.
  5. Teams need expert coaching. Most executive coaches focus on individual performance, which does not significantly improve teamwork. Teams need coaching as a group in team processes, especially at the beginning, midpoint and end of a team project.

But there’s another challenge, and it is presented by the people who don’t want to be team players. People who, when added to a team, immediately focus their attention and effort not on being a good team player but instead on dodging work, avoiding exposure and manipulating the conscientious team players into doing more than their share of the work. This is known as social loafing (or slacking), and it describes the tendency of some members of a work group to exert less effort than they would when working alone. Kent Faught, associate professor of management at the Frank D. Hickingbotham School of Business, argues in his paper about student work groups in the Journal of Business Administration Online that social loafers can’t be successful, however, unless the other team members permit the loafing and complete the project successfully: 

…the social loafer must find at least one group member that CAN and WILL achieve the group’s goals and ALLOW themselves to be social loafed on. “Social Loafer Bait” is the term used here to describe the profile of the ideal target for social loafers.

This problem isn’t new. Max Ringelmann, a French agricultural engineer, conducted one of the earliest social loafing experiments in 1913, asking participants to pull on a “tug of war” rope both individually and in groups. When people were part of a group, they exerted much less effort pulling the rope than they did when pulling alone. According to Joshua Kennon, Ringelmann’s social loafing results were replicated over the years in many other experiments (involving typing, shouting, clapping, pumping water, etc.), leading psychologists to believe that humans tend toward social loafing in virtually all group activities. Kennon shared two other conclusions:

  • The more people you put into a group, the less individual effort each person will contribute;
  • When confronted with proof they are contributing less, the individuals in the group deny it because they believe they are contributing just as much as they would have if they were working alone.

I recently asked a group of friends and colleagues who have been involved in group work at school or in their jobs to respond to a brief, unscientific survey on how they deal with social loafing. Their response pattern is shown in parentheses, and, although respondents varied in age from 20 to 50-plus, answer patterns didn’t seem to vary by age group:

You are working on an important, time-sensitive project with a group of people. One of the group members is slacking off, not contributing to project work. What do you do about it? (choose one)

  • Ask/Tell the slacker to commit to the project and start contributing (40%)
  • Report the slacker to the project sponsor (3%)
  • Complain about the slacker to other team members (10%)
  • Work harder to pick up the slack and ensure the project is successful (30%)
  • Follow the slacker’s lead and reduce your commitment and effort (0%)
  • Other (17%—Most respondents who chose this reported they would employ more than one of the listed strategies)

How effective is the response you identified above?

  • Solves the problem (27%)
  • Partially solves the problem (53%)
  • Fails to solve the problem (17%)
  • Causes other problems (3%)

Respondents who took some action (talking to the slacker, or reporting the slacker to the project sponsor) were much more likely to report that their actions solved all or part of the problem. Complaining to other team members failed to solve the problem—no surprise there. And even though 30% of respondents elected to address the slacking problem by working harder to pick up the slack (earning themselves a “social loafer bait” ID badge), the effect of doing so was mixed, spread fairly evenly among solving, partially solving, failing to solve and causing other problems.

What’s not clear is why we are so willing to tolerate social loafing in group projects and why we are so reluctant to call slackers out and hold them accountable. According to Kerry Patterson, co-author of the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High:

93% of employees report they have co-workers who don’t pull their weight, but only one in 10 confronts lackluster colleagues.

I suppose the reality is that unless work groups are tightly managed, they offer excellent cover for slackers—relative anonymity, little or no pressure from team members, great individual performance camouflage—with only a slight threat of exposure or penalty for not being a good team player. So the solution to the social loafer problem probably involves not only changes in how groups are formed, resourced and supported but also changes in the group work dynamic to eliminate the cover and camouflage and to illuminate how each individual contributes to the group work effort. (This is sometimes accomplished in university student work groups by using a formal peer review process to help group members hold each other accountable.)

As you might expect, Google is serious about teamwork (all Google employees work on at least one team), and Google wants teams to be successful. A recent study of team effectiveness at Google determined that five team dynamics (psychological safety; dependability; structure and clarity; meaning of work; and impact of work) are more important to successful teams than the talents of the individuals on the teams. To help teams manage these dynamics, Google developed a tool called the gTeams exercise, described by Julia Rozovsky of Google People Operations as:

…a 10-minute pulse-check on the five dynamics, a report that summarizes how the team is doing, a live in-person conversation to discuss the results and tailored developmental resources to help teams improve.

According to Rozovsky, Google teams reported that having a framework around team effectiveness and a forcing function (the gTeams exercise) to talk about these dynamics was the part of the experience that had the most impact. That’s not surprising, because any “forcing function” that puts a public spotlight on ineffective or unacceptable behavior makes it easier to identify and eliminate that behavior.

Given the concentration of talent at Google, I imagine the social loafers there probably boast a more refined slacker “craftiness” pedigree than most of us normally encounter. Still, I am betting the Google slackers aren’t very pleased with the light and heat generated by the gTeams exercise spotlight.