Human behaviour has always intrigued me, and always will.
As I observe how people interact with the world around them, the things I see either play to my expectations (which is most of the time), or I’m completely nonplussed (some of the time).
It’s rare that a global event happens that provides real-time insight into the behaviours of millions of people.
So when they do occur, we should be prepared to take stock of what’s happening, and ask ourselves a couple of rather important questions. Now is such a time.
To give some context to what comes next, I need you to press pause on any thoughts you're having about investments, stockmarkets or oil prices.
While I normally write about human behaviour in relation to money, here I want to go beyond the money and instead focus only on the human.
What do I mean by that?
For many years, through blogs, workshops and conferences, I've talked about the psychology of money.
This has spanned behavioural biases and how emotions play their part on the financial decisions people make.
I’ve also talked about the power of behavioural coaching, and the importance of people objectively understanding that investing involves both high highs and low lows.
But rarely do we talk exclusively about the human at the centre of these stories.
Well, that’s not wholly true. I always discuss the human, but rarely in the context of them being just a ‘normal’ person - it’s always in the context of them being an ‘investor'.
So, let's strip away the money aspect, and do just that. Focus on the human.
The sky is falling down
Many of you will recognise this title from the children’s book Chicken Licken.
It centres around a young chicken who gets hit on the head by a falling acorn and is convinced that the sky is falling down, and so sets off on a fateful quest to warn the king.
On his journey, he convinces eight other animals that the sky is falling down and so they join Chicken Licken on his journey to the king.
Along the way, a cunning fox tricks them - telling them he can help them find their way to the king. In a scene of blind trust, all the animals follow the fox into his den where they meet their sad end.
This is actually a perfect metaphor for the world we find ourselves in today.
I don't mean to underplay what's going on right now. It is very serious and could end up having long lasting social and economic repercussions.
But I do want to discuss how people cope in a genuine crisis, and this story gives me the perfect framework to do that.
Navigating the world
Like those animals who followed Chicken Licken, there's something to be said about our susceptibility to allow external influences to dictate the type of decisions we make.
The same goes for the types of things we suddenly start to do; for example, stockpiling toilet paper.
This means our susceptibility to ‘hysteria’ as opposed to ‘anxiety’ seems to be an important factor to understand. Yet it is a personality characteristic that is hidden from view until it’s triggered.
Think about the coronavirus as an example.
Every human being on the planet is being impacted either directly or indirectly (or both) by its rapid spread.
Even if no positive cases have been reported near you, the impact in terms of freedom of travel, work restrictions or the shortage in supermarkets of essential goods can’t fail but to impact us all.
So the question we need to ask ourselves is this.
How long will it take for those with a strong resistance to confirmation bias, someone who reaches decisions based on facts or evidence, to reach a tipping point where they ignore the data and rush to the supermarket to begin their own stockpiling?
There are even bigger questions when it comes to our working relationships with clients, questions we can’t ignore.
For example, in times of crisis and of super-high emotion, do you know how your clients are likely to react?
At what point do they join in the panic buying trend, pushing aside their beliefs and principles? In other words, where is the tipping point before herd mentality kicks in and where the two worlds of ‘hysteria’ and ‘anxiety’ collide?
We know in times like these there'll be a point where we allow framing, herding, action bias and other behaviours to dominate our decision-making process.
There comes a time when we stop looking for evidence and just go with the social noise.
An unfortunate truth of being a human being is you don’t want to be the only one left with limited access to food and other essentials while everyone else has stockpiled for themselves.
At the end of the day, your strong values, beliefs and principles won’t fill your empty belly.
The power of behavioural insight
Given all the above, this is a rare moment in time.
We may experience few of these kinds of events in a lifetime. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be as prepared as we possibly can. This is why I am a staunch believer in behavioural insight.
In fact, so strong is my belief in true behavioural insight, I see having a deep understanding of the behavioural tendencies of the people we serve as being non-negotiable. It’s as important as knowing their name.
Having a deep understanding of how the people we care about and who we work with tirelessly to help navigate the world around them can only ever have upside.
This is the case in both times of calm and of crisis.
But it’s also about accepting and recognising that we’re all human.
Each one of us are individual with complex biological systems and with unique interactions with the world around us.
We aren’t emotionless robots programmed to follow strict, binary rules. We take in the world around us and we react.
Even when the people closest to me, or the experts I wholeheartedly trust tell me everything's going to be OK, it’s really tough to stay calm when we see the sky falling down and we know it’s not just an acorn!
Clearly, clients aren't just an entry in a CRM system. They are real people with real emotions coursing through their bodies.
In times of crisis, they don’t want to be told to calm down, or to stick to the plan.
They want someone who accepts the abundance of behavioural traits that makes them the person they are, without being judged or chastised for being that person.
Behavioural insight is invaluable in this regard. It’s a beam of light, showing us when to step in and offer a reassuring voice, or when to put that metaphorical arm around someone’s shoulders and tell them everything will be OK.
Get this right, and the outcomes for everyone will be much greater.