Behavioral Economics


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The Enrollment Challenge

Retirement readiness decisions are a daunting task for most employees. According to a 2012 Participant Engagement Study conducted by Lincoln Financial:

  • 41 percent of employees are only somewhat engaged or fully disengaged from any retirement plan
  •  7 percent of employees only are fully engaged and interact with their retirement plan on a regular basis.

Plan communication and education can provide people with the financial knowledge needed to better understand their employee benefits and make better enrollment decisions to achieve better outcomes.

Communication Is Key

The U.S. Employee Benefits Security Administration’s ERISA Advisory Council published a key report in 2010 on how plan communication practices and design options impact participation and contribution rates. They researched strategies for tailoring communications to different subgroups of employees through direct communication, and their effectiveness in influencing participants of diverse demographic market segments, including segments categorized by income level, household status, generation, gender, and ethnicity.

The report then provided recommendations of best practices for enrollment that are statistically proven to be effective, including education to plan sponsors on specific proven techniques and communication practices. In evaluating what communication methods are most effective in encouraging participants to save for retirement, the following considerations were made:

  • Cost: an effort was made to balance the need for comprehensive plan communications against cost.
  • Delivery: A variety of methods were explored including the use of current and emerging social media.
  • Plan Design: The study reviewed how plan designs relate to increasing participant enrollment and savings. In particular, the Council studied the use of automatic features. Automatic enrollment plans automatically choose the employees’ contribution percentage and enroll the participant in an investment vehicle. This raises participation rates to close to 90 percent. However employees enrolled at low contribution rates of 3% or less tend not to deeply consider or increase their contributions.

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9 Recommendations and Best Practices

The Council found that effective plan communication and education can provide people with the financial knowledge needed to understand their employee benefits, make better financial decisions, and achieve better outcomes.

Given that the most successful plan communications make use of many channels from print to external websites, online tools, social media, and creative marketing, the Council highlighted best practices that balance personalized, targeted content to help employees evaluate benefit offerings with cost efficiency. They highlighted specific techniques and communication practices that have been statistically proven to be effective in increasing the involvement of employees in saving for retirement. The following are 9 recommendations:

  1. Communications tailored to particular segments drive results
  2. One-on-one or small group meetings increase participation
  3. Immediate “on the spot” communication is most effective
  4. Short, simple and focused communication drives participant response
  5. Multiple “touches” with various creative formats increase participation
  6. Increased technology use is effective and cost efficient
  7. Behavioral economics and “social norming” can increase participant involvement and savings
  8. Incentives given by sponsors and “gamification” help trigger participant involvement
  9. Responsive marketing principles may assist plan sponsors in improving communications

Here is a brief synopsis of these 9 practical recommendations and some best practices:

1. Communications Tailored to Particular Segments 

tailored-skill-development-imageThe Council found that communications that target participants based on their interests, background, and/or economic status were more successful than the “one size fits all” approach.

Understanding the culture and background of the workforce being targeted is key. For instance, since Hispanics will soon constitute one-third of the US population, Council member Donna MacFarland of Lincoln Financial Group stated that in her experience education materials typically are translated from English to Spanish, whereas she recommended that sponsors design the material using the reverse approach, developing  materials first in Spanish to address specific cultural needs and language differences.

Human Resource professionals also have found that allowing employees to map out an action plan rooted in realistic scenarios is an extremely effective tool. Some plan sponsors have successfully used a “three-pronged” approach to reach out to their participants by combining simple income replacement projections, behavioral finance strategies and a personalized message. For example, JP Morgan developed 36 different personas based on three age groups (younger than age 30, age 30-50 and older than 50). The firm also targeted participants based upon their regional median income (e.g., Kansas’ median income is $30,000 while in New York City it is $70,000). The basis for this approach was to enable these groups to compare themselves against their peers and take the appropriate action toward saving for retirement.

By narrowly tailoring their target audience on behalf of the plan sponsors that retained them, JP Morgan subsequently monitored whether employees opened their email communications and took action toward saving for retirement. If the individual took action, that person was considered “active,” while someone who opened the email but did not take action was considered “interested.” Based upon the action taken by the individual, the participant received specifically targeted information. This technique resulted in three to four times the response rate of participants who were not targeted.

However, some witnesses advised that there is a general concern regarding the use of targeted communications because complex data collection may provide gender or ethnic identification. Thus, there is concern over whether specific segments identified based upon race or gender could raise discrimination or deferential treatment issues. The Council heard testimony from Donna MacFarland of Lincoln Financial and Thomas Ryan of Fidelity that the use of particularly sensitive demographic information causes concern among plan sponsors. There are also practical concerns about housing information technology. Nevertheless, the overwhelming opinion received during testimony was that targeted communications work.

Branding helps targeting through the use of communications that include a unique positive image that is the group can relate to.

Here are some best practices of participant-centric communication methods:

  • Best Practice 1 – The Power of Example: Trustees of the Elevator Constructors 401(k) Plan used materials featuring the story of three employees who made different savings decisions during their careers. The narrative of the three employees was used throughout one-on-one sessions with printed materials to demonstrate how a 401(k) contribution would benefit participants in a variety of circumstances including temporary layoffs, hardships and early retirement. As a result, plan participation rates increased from 26.56 percent to 29.82 percent in 2011. The plan also experienced an 85 percent increase in plan activity from meeting attendees.
  • Best Practice 2 – Employer/Employee-Centric Content: M.A. Mortenson Company, an international construction firm, employed construction-related themes in its financial education to engage participants and foster pride in the company. Financial education was made mandatory and workshops were divided by career stage, age, and gender. The plan sponsor focused on participants’ preferences by surveying them after the workshop and making recommendations based on their feedback to yield desired results.
  • Best Practice 3 – Bilingual: Consolidated Citrus Limited Partners wanted to 1) increase attendance at plan educational meetings, 2) increase plan participation, 3) increase deferral rates and 4 encourage participants to maximize their match. Ninety percent of the workers spoke only Spanish, and the majority of their day was spent in the orange groves. An in-language campaign was initiated. The company’s Spanish speaking leaders met with small groups in the orange groves. Straightforward collateral in both Spanish and English Collateral were available on site, including announcement posters. By bringing the meetings to the employees, 95 percent of the targeted group attended the meetings. Plan participation increased from 40 percent to 75 percent and deferrals expanded from 4 percent to 8 percent.
  • Best Practice 4 – Branding: The Animation Guild 401(k) Plan was implemented for artists working at Southern California animation studios. The sponsors worked with the Guild’s representatives to obtain insights and develop a branded communication urging participants to remember to enroll. The response rate increased over eight percent from the previous year, with 135 new enrollees. Another employer cited in the research increased participation by 30 percent by keeping the message fun, simple and “cool” to target younger workers.
  • Best Practice 5 – Multicultural: The Four Seasons 401(k) Plan needed to convey an important plan change to an employer profit sharing employer matching contribution. The sponsor obtained feedback from bilingual meeting presenters in designing the campaign, and provided materials tailored to Hispanics and presentations also were created in Spanish designed to be culturally and linguistically accurate. As a result, the average deferral rate of the targeted group rose from 2.9 percent to 5 percent, and significantly increased beneficiary designations.

2. One-on-One or Small Group Meetings 

OneonOneAfter a study by Lincoln Financial found that 66% of participants prefer one-on-one guidance, Lincoln made it a component of its financial education model. They found that the need for individualized information is particularly acute for groups with low participation rates, including women and minorities.  Various studies have shown good enrollment and contribution results when employees request in-person group workshops facilitated by financial experts.

  • Best Practice for One-on-One Meetings:In 2012, MassMutual representatives spoke with 150,000 employees in face-to-face meetings. Forty-six percent of these individuals took action to improve their retirement readiness and, in one-on-one meetings, 75 percent of employees took action.
  • Best Practice for Small Group Meetings: Costs and timing may prevent plan sponsors from providing one-on-one meetings, but small group meetings and audience segmentation have also been successful. The FINRA funded Nurses Investor Education Project had small group meetings for well-educated nurses interested in taking action toward their retirement. They found that generally, the nurses’ lack of basic knowledge, or their perception that they did not know enough to attend these sessions, prevented them from attending their plan sponsor’s meetings. As a result of using small group meetings as a forum, the nurses perceptions changed and attendance at their employer’s retirement plan sessions improved.

3. Immediate “on the spot” Communication 

onthespotThe ability for participants to take action at the time they are thinking about retirement savings is more effective in increasing enrollment. For example, having computers in the room at the time employees are learning about the plan would allow them to sign up and take immediate action.

  • Best Practice: A US Army mandatory financial management course found that providing the enrollment forms for the Thrift Savings Plan during the financial management course resulted in a sizeable increase in participation, with soldiers signing up for the Plan before leaving the classroom.

4. Short, Simple, Focused Communication 

focusedBehavioral studies show that the most effective communications use simple, straightforward language specific to a participant’s personal situation.

  • Best Practice: Time constraints mean that any impediments to action should be identified and mitigated. For example, on a website, any extra step, such as the need to retrieve a PIN, may prevent employees from taking action. Solutions include sending the PIN directly to their email account or a mobile number, or mailing a postcard with the website’s uniform resource locator (URL).

5. Multiple Touches With Various Creative Formats 

profileConsistent, continuous and on-going meaningful communication can be achieved by repeatedly sending out simplified mailings. Social media can help alleviate the cost of additional touch points, and yet, few companies use social media channels for retirement information.

  • Best Practice: The Council’s Professor Madrian cites a company in which the third mailing of a simplified reply form requiring the checking of a box to enroll doubled enrollment from 22 percent to 45 percent of non-participating employees.

6. Cost Effective Technology 

advancement-of-technologyEvery demographic group is now using the Internet as a preferred source of information, via home computer or mobile devices. In addition, electronic media provides the ability to track responses, which is unavailable when the communication is sent through printed materials and regular mail. Another cost effective technological advance is Dynamic Page Publishing,  reviewed at the conclusion of this article.

A Deloitte study in 2012 that found:

  • 93 percent of Americans place Internet access as the most valued household subscription;
  • 54 percent of Americans own smartphones, and the rate is increasing 29 percent annually.
  • One of three Americans over age 50 has downloaded an application to a smartphone, and 28 percent access their bank accounts via smartphone.

Engaging Millennials: Electronic media is the most effective method of communication to engage younger generations in retirement planning, including Generation X (born between 1965 and 1979).  In order to combat inertia caused by competing financial priorities, such as student loan debt, it is important for this group to be engaged through “YouTube” videos, Facebook forums, Twitter, email and mobile delivery, including providing “one click” transactions and incorporating elements of “gamification.”   Millennials also demand simple, personalized, and action-oriented communications, and prefer human contact for complex tasks.

  • Best Practice – Email: Thomas Ryan of Fidelity Investments testified to the Council that Fidelity makes all channels of communication accessible, and finds that email communications have generated higher response rates than direct mail.
  • Best Practices for Engaging Millennials – Fidelity: Fidelity has studied the preferences of Generation Y, or “Millennials”  for using electronic communication, and found that this group tends to rely heavily on the Internet to interact with representatives from Fidelity, although they appear to be the least engaged when it comes to the frequency of contact. Millennials serviced by Fidelity have the lowest 401(k) participation rate, at 58 percent, compared to 67 percent for all other populations. Design changes made to simplify online interaction with Millennials resulted in a 40 percent increase in web utilization by this group.
  • Best Practices for Engaging Millennials – Putnam: Lori Lucas of Callan Associates discussed Putnam’s roll out of a plan primarily for Millennials that encouraged participants to bring their tablets to an nteractive meeting to log on to the benefits website. As a result, 40 percent of attendees increased their deferrals within 90 days after attending the meeting.
  • Best Practices for Engaging Millennials – MassMutual:: Offering enrollment and savings increases using iPod Touch devices in group meetings resulted in action rates of 85 – 90 percent among those attending. The use of targeted and tested mail and email campaigns resulted in $150 million in new deposits over three years and a 3.9 percent increase in action rates.

7. Behavioral Economics and “Social Norming” 

choiceThe way certain information is presented can have a resounding impact, including the way choices are presented to the participant, a method referred to as “anchoring”

Presenting options in a different order or with a higher default percentage has increased deferral rates. While communications traditionally list contribution percentages in ascending order from one to five percent, studies have shown that reversing this order so that the first option shown is five percent markedly increases enrollment in the five percent option. This method is referred to as “placement.”

 “Social Norming” reflects the fact that people tend to benchmark themselves against their peers. Statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that participants tacitly compete against peers in similar socioeconomic conditions.

8. Incentives and “Gamification” 

carrotThe use of games (gamification) is an effective tool in reaching  individuals who may not be easily engaged in retirement decisions (“non-savers”). Gamification can be used to reward people if they engage in the correct behaviors. Plan sponsors may also use incentives to provide rewards to participants with who exceed a certain benchmark contribution amount. Other techniques include raffles.

  • Best Practice 1: The NFL’s “Play 60” campaign  incorporates the use of the NFL brand to incentivize children to play a game for at least 60 minutes a day.
  • Best Practice 2: A rug manufacturer in northern Georgia had a series of meetings for people working multiple shifts, giving away lottery tickets to encourage attendance, and experienced standing room only for the meetings.

9. Six Marketing Principles Improve Communications

Communications that are uninspiring and difficult to undmarketing-300x200erstand leave employees confused, bored and unmotivated. The communicator’s “curse of knowledge” is a bias in which the communicator’s knowledgeability makes it difficult to demonstrate it from the perspective of lesser-informed people. The Council highlighted six principles of communication that plan sponsors should consider when drafting documents or presenting to their participants that will inspire action:

1. Show Empathy

empathyTo  determine the relevance of a message to an audience, it is necessary to engage them and ask questions that the content of the presentation or the communication should then be tailored to answer. For example, an energy company developed a program to help consumers understand and lower their energy bills, using this computerized question:

Can I help you with your bill?

  1. Yes, help me understand my bill.
  2. Help me save money.
  3. Both of the Above.
  4. I’m Here for Something Else.

By showing empathy to what the consumer cared about and giving information and tips to help them feel more in control, these questions presented helped raise consumer satisfaction.

2. Use Metaphors and Analogies

analogCommunications also reference a metaphor or visual picture to help the recipient relate to the message. For example, when Ridley Scott presented the screenplay for Alien to his producers he used the popular movie Jaws as a reference, and the metaphor “it’s like Jaws in space,” to frame a concept that the producers easily understood

3. Use Storytelling

icon-storytellingPeople tend to forget facts that are presented but usually remember a story. Stories are easy to absorb when people are overwhelmed with information. They also eliminate extraneous facts to capture the recipient’s interest and relate to him on an emotional level.

4. Use a Conversational Voice

conversationalUsing overly technical information, compliance or legal jargon can loose an audience. For example, it is difficult to convey the benefit of voluntary life insurance individual and spouse buy-up options in which election of coverage for a spouse can equal up to half an individual’s buy-up,  depending on the desired level of coverage. An effective way of communicating this is as follows:

“The company is going to buy life insurance for you. If you want, you can buy extra life insurance. Whatever extra life insurance you buy for yourself, you can also buy up to half that amount for your spouse. Now, depending on how much additional insurance you’d like, one or both of you may need to answer some questions about your health to see if you qualify for it.”

5. Surprise the Recipient

boxing-glove-surpriseUnexpected methods of engaging the recipient get the individual’s attention when a subject is ordinarily challenging and abstract. The use of humor, as shown below, can be considered an example.

6. Use Humor

humorUsing a little humor in the message will keep the audience engaged and make the message easier for audiences to relate to.

 

Plan Design Considerationsicon-design

Automatic Enrollment

A study by Brigitte Madrian and Dennis Shea shows that automatic enrollment increases average participation rates from 65 percent to 85 percent. It is particularly helpful for low-income workers with annual wages under $20,000, where participation increased from 27 percent to 82 percent. Average participation for employees under age 30 doubled from 41 percent to 82 percent, and the best improvements have been among the segments that had the lowest participation rates.  This was corroborated in as presented in the testimony of Lori Lucas.

Mandatory Contributions and Automatic Escalation

Defaults that are too low can  impact workers who would otherwise have contributed more. Since studies have shown higher default contribution rates have not increased opt-out rates, employers should consider recommending higher default contribution rates.

One solution is a stretch match (increasing the maximum amount of pay that can be matched and decreasing the percent matched, to keep the employer’s costs flat.

Another way to increase savings is automatic escalation in which sponsors automatically increase a worker’s contribution rate by one to two percent  of salary at each pay anniversary until a cap, such as 12 percent of pay.

Best Practice – TIAA-CREF: David Richardson of TIAA-CREF found that 403(b) plans typically have much higher contribution rates, ranging from 10 percent to 15 percent of pay compared to 5 percent to 7percent for all 401(k) plans, due to mandatory contributions from both employers and employees as a requirement of employment.  The 403(b) plans TIAA-CREF administers experience much higher annuitization rates — 40 percent compared to 4 percent for all 401(k) plans.

 Conclusions and Implications

red pencilThe Council found that continuous, simplified, personalized communication using multiple channels, connected with humor and empathy, are effective ways to communicate with plan participants to encourage participant engagement.

Benefit Program Marketers seeking to increase employee plan participation need to be more flexible, customizable and responsive than ever to introduce, present, promote and clarify the particular offerings and choices the employer has agreed to sponsor. Dynamic Publishing platforms are becoming a key tool in executing this strategy DPP is a way of designing publications in which layout templates are created which can contain different content in different publications. In cases where the same content is being used in multiple layouts, the same layout is being used for several different sets of content, or both, dynamic page publishing can offer significant advantages of efficiency over a traditional system of page-by-page design. Future articles will explore Dynamic Publishing in greater depth.

Related Blog Article:

financial literacy chart

A Huge Disconnect

Paula Vasan in Financial Planning magazine highlights a striking FINRA Investor Education Foundation report about consumer attitudes toward, and need for financial literacy. The findings show a huge disconnect between consumers’ perceptions vs. reality when it comes to financial planning:
  • 75% of Americans have “positive perceptions” of their own financial knowledge and math skills.
  • Yet just 14% were able to correctly answer five financial literacy questions compiled by FINRA’s investor education foundation.
These startling findings are based on surveys of more than 25,000 adults conducted across the US between 2012 and 2009, in which an online test was used to evaluate the financial knowledge of participants. You can view the full results of FINRA’s quiz here.

Who’s Most At Risk?

FINRA’s survey found that financial capability varies by geography and demographic groups:

Geographical Disparities: The Coastal States Do Better

  • Citizens of California, Massachusetts and New Jersey were the most financially capable, ranking in the top five in at least three of five measures of financial capability.
  • Mississippi was the least financially capable state, placing in the bottom five in four out of five measures, while Arkansas ranked in the bottom five in three out of five measures, and Kentucky ranked in the bottom five in two out of five measures.

Generational Disparities: Younger Americans at Risk

  • Younger Americans, especially those 34 and under, are more likely to show signs of financial stress, including taking a loan or hardship withdrawal from their retirement account or making late mortgage payments.
  • Younger Americans are more likely to have unpaid medical bills. The breakdown is as follows:
    • 31% of those aged 18-34.
    • 17% of those aged 55 or older.

Gender Disparities: Women at Risk

Other studies have shown women to be at risk.  A report by workplace financial education provider Financial Finesse, 2012 Gender Gap in Financial Literacy Researchshows women still lagging in in key areas of financial planning, and, further, the report identified that the gap between the genders is widening in nearly every area of financial planning.

A Widespread Societal Problem

Despite these disparities, the national averages show a serious across-the-board need for financial planning help.  Of the five basic financial literacy questions tested, the national average was just 2.88 correct answers.

  • Only 41% spend less than their income.
  • 26% report having unpaid medical bills.
  • 56% do not have sufficient savings to cover three months of unanticipated financial emergencies.
  • 34% paid only the minimum credit card payment during the past year.

Unfortunately, these are not isolated findings, but have been corroborated by numerous studies over the years. For instance:

  • A 2012, the SEC report on financial literacy concluded that “American investors lack essential knowledge of the most rudimentary financial concepts: inflation, bond prices, interest rates, mortgages, and risk.”
  • 69% of 1,664 participants in a 2010 Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance study to determine Americans’ general financial knowledge  failed the quiz.
  • In a 2008 study of high school seniors, only 36.2% knew that “retirement income provided by a company” is called a “pension.”
  • An Ariel study of 401(k) savings disparities found that African-American and Hispanic workers in the U.S. have lower 401(k) balances and participation rates than their white and Asian counterparts.

Serious Economic Implications

This paints a grim picture of the state of American financial literacy. The implications of the financial literacy disconnect are twofold:

  1. Consumers who are unable to understand their financial planning needs are unlikely to realize their full financial potential.
  2. An uneducated public lowers the bar for financial planners, leaving consumers at risk.

Ms. Vasan interviewed fiduciary advocate Ron Rhoades, program chair of the Alfred State Financial Planning Program. He emphasized the need for a strong fiduciary standard of conduct requiring planners to act in the best interests of the client. According to Mr. Rhoades:

Sadly, 80% or more of ‘financial advice’ and ‘investment advice’ provided today is not provided in the best interests of consumers, but rather is — often unknown to the consumer — designed to sell expensive investment products to unsuspecting consumers.

A 2009 National Financial Capability Study found that only 15% of respondents indicated that they had “checked an advisor’s background or credentials with a state or federal regulator, ” and an alarming 43% of investors in a 2007 MoneyTrack/IPT Investing Secrets Survey demonstrated a susceptibility to fraud.

An April 9, 2012 Op Ed by Time Business and Money titled Improving Financial Literacy is Essential to Our Nation’s Economic Health written by Roger W. Ferguson Jr., president and CEO of TIAA-CREF, and a former vice chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, sums it up well:

Why It Matters: People with low levels of financial literacy suffer from that lack of knowledge at every stage of their lives: Another study from the TIAA-CREF Institute shows that people with a high degree of financial literacy are more likely to plan for retirement, and that people who plan for retirement have more than double the wealth of people who don’t.

Conversely, people who have a lower degree of financial literacy tend to borrow more, accumulate less wealth, and pay more in fees related to financial products. They are less likely to invest, more likely to experience difficulty with debt, and less likely to know the terms of their mortgages and other loans. 

The cost of this financial ignorance is high, leading many people to incur avoidable charges and fees from things like making late credit card payments or paying only the minimum amount due, overspending their credit limit, and using cash advances.

Calling All Planners

Consumers Need Help: The problem is likely to become worse as Generations X and Y head into middle age. And the educational response has been negligible. 26 states have no financial literacy requirements at all in their K-12 education systems, and only four states require students to take a personal finance class in high school.

The Disconnect Makes Financial Planning a Hard Sell: A more complex financial environment coupled with an enormous disconnect between consumer needs and attitudes creates a huge challenge for financial planners. The services of Financial Planners are more needed than ever, but getting people to face these sensitive matters remains a hard sell.

What Planners Can Do: Given this disconnect, astute financial planners can help to bridge the gap between need and perception by offering to conduct financial planning classes at local schools, civic groups (like Lion’s and Rotary), local businesses and other public forums.

A Business Development Opportunity For Planners Too

Not only does this meet a vital need, but it provides invaluable opportunities for financial professionals to increase their business in the community. Financial literacy classes can help financial planners to :

  • Introduce and advertise their practice.
  • Differentiate themselves as credible, trusted professionals in a crowded field.
  • Network within community-based associations and organizations where they can increase their visibility, gain referrals, and become trusted, influential resources.

Financial literacy classes provide an entry point for planners to get involved with community organizations and expand their influence, and can open up opportunities that can lead to networking, referrals and sales, by:

  • Serving on organization committees.
  • Buying tickets or a table for their functions.
  • Buying adds in their programs.
  • Submitting an informational article to their newsletters.
  • Assisting in or sponsoring events.
A financial literacy program provides opportunities for planners to be seen as thought leaders and trusted resources, making organization members receptive to a request for a networking meeting or an appointment to explain the services they provide. At the same time, planners will gain great confidence that they are helping consumers to make better financial choices, starting with the choice to engage a trusted advisor for the support they need.
Commentary by Joel L. Franks

Kaneman_fotoApril 10, 2013–

This past week, I had the unique opportunity to attend and hear Daniel Kahneman discuss his best-selling book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, during a speaking engagement that took place at a Barnes and Noble Bookstore in New York City. Many of you may be familiar with the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and his ground-breaking work with Prospect Theory and behavioral economics. His most recent book addresses two modes of human thought: the quick, emotional kind and the pondering, logical type. In the book, Kahneman shares his views around several heuristics and biases from anchoring to framing to, of course, loss aversion. But during his discussion at this New York City event, it wasn’t what was written in the book that captured my attention as more the learning lessons he conveyed from his own life experiences.

While there were several fascinating anecdotes Daniel shared with the audience that night, there are two points I found of particular interest and unexpected. One is what he believes captured the attention of the public in his early studies of psychology and second is what he feels is an error in our society with the pursuit of measuring happiness.

How do you challenge rationality in the face of hardline economists?

The moderator asked Mr. Kahneman about the early impact of his work and why others experienced such a profound curiosity in his field. Kahneman attributes the interest in his research and behavioral economics as a direct result of HOW the study was published in Science magazine many years ago and perhaps not as much on the content.

The way we presented on the theory was by having questions in the body of the text…which means the reader can appreciate their own reaction to the question as they [experience] making the errors something that they experience [too]…it’s the fact that they are prone to make errors and they come to recognize it. It is a personal experience and a personal response. This [written] work had more impact than most other psychological work at the time because there is hardly any other psychology studies [published] that will generate from the reader of your paper a personal experience that validates what you are conveying.

We thought we were writing in a fun way to write, but it turned out to be the key to the impact of the theory.

Unbeknownst to Kahneman was the profound concept of “framing” in the way he conveyed his own research—the simplicity of introducing a study in terms of dialogue.  Is this not where we find the field of marketing today?  We once categorized marketing as either a push or pull strategy, but it has been replaced by the conversation age, which has proven to be far more impactful when it comes to building relationships with customers (or in Daniel’s case, interest in his readers). Think about marketing today and your own personal experiences; it’s all about dialogue. Tell me one company in one industry that does not have a social media plan in place seeking to engage consumers in a conversation.

Stop Focusing on Happiness

IMG_20130408_195639_150

The second revelation during Kahneman’s discussion was his view on using measures of happiness as an alternative to economic measures on societal progress. He sees a fundamental issue with regard to how we spend a great deal of time, energy and money on the pursuit of happiness.

I think the focus on happiness is misguided and I think the focus on happiness in part is an accident of language. We measure length and not shortness, we measure depth and not shallowness, and we only see in dimensions that are marked on the one side we are thinking of. We should be measuring suffering. And we should act as a society to reduce suffering… I am much less concerned about happiness and [in favor of] reducing human suffering.

Based on the round of applause he received in response, I think the general audience would tend to agree. Kahneman expressed these thoughts on the coattails of how society would reap greater benefits if we put more effort toward such an endeavor. I cannot help but put on my own behavioral finance spin on these sentiments. I believe that many people exclaim that they are in the pursuit of wealth (which they may equate with happiness and what money can buy), but maybe all they really want is not to be poor (and avoid financial suffering and the inability to acquire essential needs)?

Of course this is a leading question, but hey, the idea is to be engaging, enrich the conversation, and hopefully have others share their personal views.

 Joel L. Franks is a Behavioral Finance and Financial Marketing Professional. His background in behavioral economics and his extensive experience in banking, brokerage and insurance has enabled him to combine both the science and the art of creating innovative marketing strategy, create positive customer experiences and the ability to sell more product, to more people, more often.

standardized-test-cartoon

The notion that passing a standardized test qualifies someone for something is completely fallacious. It’s a fallacy based on ignorance at best, and profit at worst.

a. True

b. False

c. No comment

d. Don’t rock the boat

 

Related Reading:

Can-Behavioral-Economics-Help-Agency-Creative

 in Life Health Pro writes about some of the cognitive errors that lead to bad financial decisions. It looks like a 2-part series, so look for more of her at the above link.

1: Loyalty to an Underperforming Financial Advisor

This is an investment mistake that I have mentioned in the past – Status Quo Bias. Kerry provides the following study that illustrates the potency of this error:

William Samuelson of Boston University showed clients three investment options: one stock with a 50 percent chance of staying the same, another stock with 40 percent of staying the same, a U.S. treasury with a 9 percent return and a municipal bond with a 6 percent tax-free return. Which to choose?

Forty-seven percent of those who were told they already owned an investment stuck with the investment they already had. This study showed that people are inclined to stay with what they have no matter how bad the performance. This also explains why some seniors will stay with a bad advisor.

2:  Reluctance to Reallocate After Losses

Rational individuals who realize that they have made an investment that is costing them money would dump the investment for a better one, right?  Actually, no. There is a documented tendency to stubbornly hold on to the bad investment because “I’ve put so much into this that I can’t just give up on it so easily.”

So people tend to throw good money after bad, like gamblers on a losing streak. It’s a form of denial, driven by the pain of loss. This is the “Sunk Cost Fallacy.” The You Are Not So Smart Blog offers some illustrations:

Have you ever gone to see a movie only to realize within 15 minutes or so you are watching one of the worst films ever made, but you sat through it anyway? You didn’t want to waste the money, so you slid back in your chair and suffered.

Maybe you once bought non-refundable tickets to a concert, and when the night arrived you felt sick, or tired, or hung over. Perhaps something more appealing was happening at the same time. You still went, even though you didn’t want to, in order to justify spending money you knew you could never get back.

What about that time you made it back home with a bag of tacos, and after the first bite you suspected they might have been filled with salsa-infused dog food, but you ate them anyway not wanting to waste both money and food?

If you’ve experienced a version of any of these, congratulations, you fell victim to the sunk cost fallacy.

Sunk costs are payments, investments or costs that can never be recovered. A rational thinker would understand that sunk costs can’t be recovered by seeing a thing through to the end, and would not take sunk costs into account in making a decision. The rational investor would cut their losses and move on. However, since loss aversion is one of the strongest human drives,  many people stubbornly go down with the ship rather than face up to the fact of loss.

Studies Show The Power of Emotion Over Reason

The Bad Ski Trip Test: An experiment conducted by Hal Arkes and Catehrine Blumer  in 1985 demonstrates the power of this illogic. They asked subjects to assume they had spent $100 on a ticket for a ski trip in Michigan, but soon after found a better ski trip in Wisconsin for $50 and bought a ticket for this trip too. They were asked the following question: If the two trips overlapped and the tickets couldn’t be refunded or resold, which trip would you choose, the $100 good vacation, or the $50 great one?

The result: over half of the subjects chose the more expensive trip – obviously not because it  promised to be more fun, but because the loss seemed greater.

The sunk cost fallacy prevented the subjects from recognizing that the best choice is to do whatever promises the better experience in the future, not the choice that negates the feeling of loss in the past.

The Lost Ticket Test: Kahneman and Tversky also conducted an experiment that also demonstrates the power of the sunk cost fallacy. They asked subjects how they would respond to 2 hypothetical scenarios:

Scenario 1: Imagine you go see a movie with a $10 ticket price. When you open your wallet, you realize that you’ve lost a $10 bill. Would you still buy a ticket?

  • The result: only 12% of subjects said they would not buy another ticket. An 84% majority would buy another ticket and see the show.

Scenario 2: Now, imagine you go to see the movie, pay $10 for the ticket, but just as you are entering the theater, you realize you’ve lost the ticket. Would you go back and buy another ticket?

  • The result: 54% said they would not buy another ticket. Only 46% would buy another ticket and see the show.

The 2 hypothetical scenarios yielded different responses, and yet, the loss was identical in each case – ie. you lose $10 and then consider paying another $10 to see the movie. Yet, somehow, the second scenario feels different. Because it seems more as if the money was allocated to a specific purpose, the loss is felt so much more.

Regardless of the differing outcomes of the two tests shown above, the results in each case illustrate that logic doesn’t always prevail over emotion in decisions in which people feel they have a vested interest. Because people do not always make rational decisions, it is that much more important to frame their choices in ways that can help guide them to make decisions that are in their best interests.

How Widespread Are Poor Decisions?

A variation of the scenarios given above will serve to illustrate just how pervasive these kinds of irrational decision making are today:

The Great American Gun Control Bugaboo: Statistics conclusively show that the more readily available guns are, the less safe people are. Yet, people cling to the notion that they need these guns to protect them from armed perpetrators, and even from the overreach of the government.  In fact, the opposite is true: guns make us less safe. It can clearly be seen that those states and nations where guns are less plentiful have significantly lower rates of gun violence.

This, too, is partly a form of the sunk cost scenario – people have invested so much emotional commitment to an idea that no amount of proof to the contrary can easily sway them. The loss here is not economic so much as the giving up of a cherished notion.

Beyond Persuasion: Choice Architecture

Financial planners know that no amount of logic can persuade a prospect to make the more logical financial decision when that prospect’s mind is set on something else.

And insurance agents know all too well that some prospects simply won’t purchase a much needed life insurance policy because the fear of the loss of the cash (even if they can afford the premium) is too great.  The hard reality that these people will eventually face is the fact that death is a 100% certainty, and it creates financial hardship for one’s beneficiaries. Ironically, clinging to the percentage of income that would have purchased a life insurance policy results in a much greater loss when that income is lost.

For marketers and sales professionals, it is imperative that the presentation be framed in such a way that it is easier for the client to make a more rational decision.  The challenge marketers face is to reframe the decision process to influence the consumer to make the choices that are in their best interests.  Market testing can verify that an approach can be more effective in guiding consumer decisions. Marketers need to combine a strong sense of fiduciary responsibility for the customer with the principles of behavioral economics to overcome cognitive biases that lead people to make the wrong financial decisions.

Kevin Allen in Ragan’s PR Daily explains that he takes the time to look at a baby animal every day, even though he’s a baby animal enthusiast. It’s just that he spends so much time on the Internet.Fortunately, Japanese researchers (who else?) have shown that this increases productivity. The Atlantic Wire highlights a study at Hiroshima University:

“A team led by Hiroshi Nittono had 48 male and female students perform a visual task where they were asked to look for double digits in a series of random matrices with numbers. The students were asked to give as many accurate responses as possible in three minutes. Then, the students looked at pictures before doing the task again. One group looked at cute baby animals, another at less cute adult animals, and a third at pleasant-looking food.”

Results: the group that looked at the baby animals was the most productive.

I’m curious whether marketers can use the effect to stimulate people to buy more.

 of GetElastic put together this informative infographic on the culture of multitasking and what it does to our brains. See the links below for more research on the subject – in between clicks, that is. 😉

multitasking-infographic

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