Oceanic whitetip shark. (2014, August 29). Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved
11:13, July 22, 2017
from https://simple.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Oceanic_whitetip_shark&oldid=4875771.

Changing people’s behaviour is hard. Even if we have agreed that it needs to change, actually acting on this new knowledge is hard enough, but getting that agreement in the first place by shifting our beliefs is even harder.

It gets worse. The research suggests that providing risk information is ineffective in changing behaviour. You might need to read that again before it sinks in: risk information is ineffective in changing behaviour.

Professor Theresa Marteau, Director of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit at the University of Cambridge, and her team have been looking at the four behaviours responsible for the majority of premature deaths worldwide: smoking, eating too much, drinking too much (alcohol) and moving too little. The original focus of their work concerned how people responded to genetic test results indicating a greater predisposition to diabetes, cancer and other diseases. What they found is that the genetic test may get someone past the first barrier, ie agreeing that they need to change their behaviour, but not the second part, ie actually doing it.

As Marteau says: Few of us would swim in waters signed as shark-infested. On the other hand, when the risk of future disease is up against the pleasures of current consumption, it doesn’t tend to compete very well. Marteau summarises their findings as follows:

Put simply, we overestimate how much our behaviour is under intentional control and underestimate how much is cued by environment.

In my view, this research is directly applicable to the financial services industry and explains a lot of behaviours which have up until now often been considered as separate rather than related problems, eg:

  • The failure of consumers to shop around adequately in the annuities and investment markets (we know we should but get easily discouraged by the difficulty of the process);
  • The stampede to take transfer values out of defined benefit pension schemes (the possibility of immediate consumption trumping deferred gains); and
  • The surge in the tax take at HMRC caused by people removing all of their cash from defined contribution pension schemes (same again).

Turning to my own profession for a moment, and looking on the Become an actuary part of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries website, we find: Actuaries use their skills to help measure the probability and risk of future events. A little further on we find: It is essential that actuaries have excellent communication skills to enable them to communicate actuarial ideas to non-specialists in a way that meets the needs of the audience.

So, in a nutshell, producing risk information and then communicating it.

As a pensions actuary, I spent most of my time overseeing calculations which underpinned reports to clients which I would then summarise in presentations in order to get them to move a little bit further towards fully funding their pension schemes than where they were starting from. And then we had to condense the whole of that process into a single meeting where we tried to persuade the people who were actually doing the funding as part of the negotiation of the final deal. While, unconsciously, I am sure that just my presence was having some kind of placebo or nocebo effect, all of my conscious effort was directed on providing risk information and communicating it.

And actuaries are not alone in focusing on the provision of risk information as the most important element in guiding consumer behaviour. From the Financial Conduct Authority’s Retail Distribution Review, to the Pensions Advisory Service and Pension Wise, we are obsessed with it.

However if we are going to really change behaviour in response to the many risks these consumers face, we need to be spending much less time on producing risk information (which coincidentally may be done for us in the future by increasing capable machines anyway)and much more time focusing on the design of the financial environment we all operate within.

But if changing the environment is so much more effective for changing behaviour, perhaps what we need is a framework of standardised definitions to characterise any interventions we make. Fortunately the social scientists are way ahead of us on this and have produced just such a framework. TIPPME (typology of interventions in proximal physical micro-environments) has been developed and demonstrated by applying it to the selection, purchase and consumption of food, alcohol and tobacco. As the authors state: This provides a framework to reliably classify and describe, and enable more systematic design, reporting and analysis of, an important class of interventions. This then allows evidence to be collected into what works and what doesn’t in changing behaviour across populations.

Our physical health and what interventions cause us to look after it better are thought sufficiently important for a coordinated approach to designing the risk environment, rather than the piecemeal legislation and partial solutions offered by commercial providers we have had to date, to be worthwhile. I would suggest that our financial health needs to be given similar consideration. This looks like a promising way forward that could result in truly evidence-based financial regulation, with the prospect of lasting change to the way we help consumers navigate a path through the financial seas. Far away from the sharks.


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