Skydiving, Social Decision Making

Thrillax beats chillax every time

“Why on earth would anyone want to jump out of a perfectly serviceable aeroplane?” everyone asks me.

They always use the same, rather quaint, phrase, “perfectly serviceable aeroplane”, as if they’ve just clambered out of their RAF overalls.

At least it tells me they’ve never been anywhere near a jump ‘plane, which are mostly antique, rotting hulks held together with binder-twine, bubble-gum and gaffer tape.

It’s true that most of us do offer up a silent prayer as we exit the ‘plane at 13,000 feet.

But it’s only for the safety of the poor pilot who has to land the damned thing when he gets down.

We’d all rather trust our parachutes.

So this week, I’m on holiday. Jumping in Eloy, Arizona, home of the largest fleet of jump ‘planes in the world.

And, all credit to the wonderful owners and organisers of Skydive Arizona, this huge fleet is in fact way more than just “perfectly serviceable”.

But still the question persists, so I thought I’d try and give my best shot at an answer.

Most of the studies into so-called ‘dangerous sports’ seem to focus on an imagined enhancement to status and self-esteem amongst those who attempt things that seem brave/foolhardy to others.

This is another way of saying people take risks to get noticed and to get girls.

Actually the research is very conclusive on the subject: the status of a person who puts themselves purposefully at risk is only enhanced when they do so in order to benefit others.

That makes sense, doesn’t it?

Fireman rescues damsel from burning building = hunky hero.
Middle-aged bloke jumping from aeroplane for no ‘good’ reason = feckin’ eedjit.

I’ve heard other skydivers explain away their enthusiasm by distancing themselves from the whole dangerous sports crowd entirely.

And it’s perfectly true that skydiving is way safer than you’d imagine.

You think it’s dangerous because a) it’s unfamiliar, and therefore not to be trusted by ‘normal’ people and b) you’ve almost certainly recently read about skydiving accidents.

Journalists far prefer to write about skydiving accidents than car crashes.

It’s the good old “Availability Heuristic” at work – with added “Recency Effect”!

Using US figures (where more skydiving happens than in every other country combined) there’s 0.0007% chance of dying from a skydive, compared to a 0.0167% chance of dying in a car accident (based on driving 10,000 miles).

Put another way you are about 24 times more likely to die in a car accident than in a skydiving one.

It looks even better when you compare it to other things people consider perfectly safe and normal like riding a bicycle in an urban environment (insane) or any form of equestrianism (probably the single most dangerous activity of all).

Skydiving is all about safety, not about danger.

All about mitigating risks with training and technology.

And the average number of skydiving fatalities per year is almost half of what it used to be in the 1970s.

But these statistic apologists are missing the point too.

We do do it for fun, no question about it.

So what is that fun precisely?

My perspective is that almost all participants in almost every sport benefit from a physiological thrill provided by endorphins.

People who do risky things get the additional benefit from a blast of adrenaline – the body’s drug of last resort.

It’s adrenaline that has helped mothers lift cars that are crushing their children.

It’s adrenaline that explains how indifferent runners can outrun athletes, when they’re in danger.

It helps you focus your mental and physical resources in times of need. And it’s strong stuff.

I skydive to relax.

When I lie on a beach, I worry about all things I ought to be doing at home and at work.

When I read a book, even when I’m really enjoying it, I feel a bit guilty I’m not ‘getting on with something”

When I’m jumping out of a ‘plane I’m thinking about how to get back on the ground in one piece.

And if I do that five or six times a day, I end up physically exhausted with a mind that feels like it’s been down the boot-sale and unloaded a whole attic full of neural junk.

And I’m properly relaxed.

I know I get some of the same benefits from skiing and scuba-diving.

The special appeal of skydiving, to me, is the combination of max-adrenaline (that comes from the high-stakes involved) and high levels of control (equipment, training, focus) that give me the confidence to enjoy it.

As I think of the poor Prime Minister “chillaxing” with his Angry Birds, I wonder whether he wouldn’t be better off thrillaxing with us?

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Behaviour Change, Moral Decision Making, Persuasion, Politics, Social Decision Making

Think you can force through a change as big as Obamacare? Think again.

I want to talk about the controversial healthcare reforms that are causing such a kerfuffle on the other side of the pond.

“That’s rich”, I hear you snigger, “A Brit, with an opinion about US healthcare. Let’s see now…”

Well, it’s true that I barely understand it. So I’m certainly not going to try to explain it to you.

If you want a quick, bluffers’ guide to the “Affordable Care Act”, this is the best one I’ve found:

“It’s complicated”, as they say, even explained by the You Toons.

One joker has even tried to put into infographic form:

ObamacareInfoGraphic

And although people talk about the “closing wonk gap” (i.e. members of the general public figuring out facts about Obamacare that policy wonks on both sides of the debate have known for years), I guess you’d be prepared to agree with me that probably only a fraction of the people who need to understand the ins and outs of the proposed changes, actually properly do.

To give you some extra quick context, the video clip above has been viewed just 1.1 million times, which equates to it been seen by about 0.3% of the US population (Miley’s “Wrecking Ball” is on 327,294,077 views at the time of writing).

This hasn’t stopped anyone taking a position of course. And a strong one at that. There really aren’t very many ambivalent people in the US it seems, when it comes to this particular debate.

And it’s led to the fiercest, most destructive political brinksmanship and grandstanding in most of our living memories.

Why?

The concept is straightforward: Universal access to affordable healthcare ought to be the hallmark of a civilised well-developed society. Even at either extreme of the political spectrum, one ought to be able to get a nod on that, surely?

However even here in little Blighty, our precious NHS, providing care free at the point of use to all, is creaking and cracking as the apparently opposing forces of quality and affordability clash their irreconcilable heads. Even here it’s a nettle with a politically lethal sting.

The implications of realising a goal of this kind in a country (or more accurately countries) as huge and diverse as the United States go straight to the central ideological differences between the Elephant and the Donkey. And this is where the practicality of implementation simply falls apart.

Because democratic politics is really only successful when elected politicians of different persuasions propose, debate, negotiate, vote and repeat until a deal is brokered.

“Obamacare” is the first instance for 100 years where one party has simply steamrollered a bill with huge national implications without garnering any kind of even partial agreement from the opposing party.

To see this more clearly, look at the J. P. Morgan chart below, which shows that almost all the important and controversial bills in living memory were passed with at least some level of participation and consent from both parties in both chambers.

Now look at the bottom and contrast with Obamacare.

Obamacare JPM 1

The Democrats inability to empathise with their opponents implacable opposition to their solution has led to adopt a kind of “fuck you” politics, which can only provoke a “fuck you back, with knobs on” response. The Republicans, for their part, are now in the ludicrous position of proposing spoiling measures which may end up increasing the need for state intervention in the commercial supply of health insurance policies – one of the things they fundamentally oppose. The fight will go on, and the animosity between the two sides of legislators continues to grow.

And, just to remind you, 82% of Americans were perfectly happy with their health care system, before this all started (according to Gallup).

Now just 36% of voters support the bill.

And President Obama is now enjoying the worst popularity rating of any president except R. Nixon Esq.

A sharp reminder that big change needs broad consensus not just bright answers.

And establishing that broad consensus takes time, effort and excellent persuasion and communication skills – something noticeably lacking on both sides of the political divide in this instance.

It’s also a salutary reminder of another more important principle:

A democratic mandate gives you the right to try and govern. It doesn’t give you the right to get your own way.

That’s called something different.

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Advertising, Behavioural Economics, Marketing Strategy

Seek familiarity, not fame

Everyone who comes in through our door wants a “viral” these days.

I explain as patiently as I can that “full-service” doesn’t include that sort of thing anymore and we’ve all had our jabs in any case.

They then look a bit confused until I put them out of their misery.

“Oh!” I say, “you mean a punchy little film created for next-to-no-money that suddenly hits the webby-big-time and gets shared by countless millions of chortling geeks, all for free?”

“That’s it!” they say, brightening visibly.

I guess it’s just a function of our preoccupation with celebrity and the parallel attraction of something for nothing.

But there’s usually a problem.

Scan the list of most shared videos online and count how many have commercial/branded origins?

Now take that list and count how many have succeeded in a way that is consistent with their brand idea and character and doesn’t contain a moonwalking Shetland pony.

(Although that was quite a good one.)

There are some, but we’re entering Lotto-style percentage territory.

What you can’t check is the same picture looked at the other way round.

How many truly appalling, cringe-worthy attempts have been made to leap this particular existential chasm, and how many mangled examples of ill-conceived, out of character nonsense now languish at the bottom of the trench, their abject failure indelibly tattooed on them for all to see: “143 views”.

More extraordinary still are those organisations that seem to think that they can swap their successful strategy of carefully deploying professionally crafted integrated marketing communications assets for an approach where you essentially stick everything on red and hope you hit the jackpot.

My point goes further, though, than showing how slim your chances of digital glory are.

Because even when it works, it doesn’t do you as much good as you might imagine. Successful brand marketing is about achieving everyday familiarity not about getting famous.

If the difference between these two things seems mostly semantic to you, consider the following:

Branded products are trusted over non-branded products. This is a fact. Branded products are more considered by potential customers than non-branded products. They also command higher price points and (usually) margins too. These things are also facts.

But why is this?

Marketing people, who seek constantly to impose rational order on the behavioural chaos that surrounds them, will usually argue that it’s because they have come to stand for something on which the customer can rely.

This is true. But it’s not as true as they imagine.

Research we conducted into a very undifferentiated, apparently price-driven market threw up some rather astonishing results.

Before I explain these results I need to emphasise a crucial difference between two commonly used marketing research measures: spontaneous brand awareness and prompted brand awareness.

Spontaneous brand awareness is measured by asking a question like:

“You’re thirsty and fancy a (non-alcoholic) drink. Which brands come to mind most easily?”

Prompted brand awareness is measured by asking a question like:

“Have you heard of Coca-cola?”

(Sorry if you already know this.)

We discovered that brand consideration was almost perfectly correlated with spontaneous brand awareness.

The correlation between brand trust and spontaneous brand awareness was also extremely high, in excess of 0.8.

Familiarity

We were a bit shocked. But we shouldn’t have been.

Actually the recent research into behavioural science confirms the power of familiarity. It seems our brains are hard wired to prefer the things they recognise and to fear unfamiliar things, people and concepts.

If you want a really shocking demonstration of how these effects influence all our judgements and prejudices, visit yourmorals.org and take a few of their online tests.

When you get into the science itself, it’s all part of the way in which our brain conserves energy, using data from previous experiences rather than recalculating anew each time.

We make choices that have worked for us in the past. When we have no experience, we search for instances of other people (as like us as possible) having positive experiences and we use that as a proxy.

“500 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong”, we say to ourselves and the job is done.

Another effect (called the “availability heuristic” in Behavioural Economic Science) means that we also tend to overestimate the prevalence of things we are familiar with and/or have experienced recently.

“Is this phenomenon widespread?” we ask ourselves. Off scurries the brain, searching for examples. If it can find two or three examples easily, it concludes the phenomenon is indeed widespread. If no examples come to mind, it concludes the opposite.

Here’s the next thing.

There is practically no correlation between prompted brand awareness and either brand consideration or brand trust.

So being famous (‘have you heard of) doesn’t get you trusted or considered. But being familiar (‘which brands can you think of now’) does.

I’ve used data from an undifferentiated market (where products are considered quite similar to each other) because that’s where this effect is most marked.

The more differentiated your product is within your particular category, the less important everyday familiarity will be, relative to other brand dimensions. But don’t underestimate its power, even in these instances.

Until you are talking about real fashion brands and high-end luxury purchases, familiarity remains the single strongest driver of both consideration and trust.

Despite this, an amazing number of marketing people insist on using prompted brand awareness as their key measure of success even though they can link it to no commercial effect.

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Advertising, Behavioural Economics, Persuasion

I’d rather have the courage of your convictions

Years ago I ran the global advertising account for a huge multinational company.

It was my first experience of ‘stakeholder engagement’ on a global and massive scale.

The company prided itself on being a ‘consensus culture’.

So two dozen plus people had to sign-off on the global corporate ad campaign.

Since these were senior executives who thought their daily dollar unearned unless they had ‘added value’ to the things on which they were consulted, this was something of a challenge.

But I found a neat way round the problem.

It turned out that these senior people had one concern greater than the need to add their own twopenny-worth to the process.

They were extremely concerned to know how their peers were voting.

Having read “The Righteous Mind” by the wonderful Jonathan Haidt, I know why this is.

Actually we rely more than we would care to admit on the opinions of others, rather than our own judgement.

We use our peer group – the people whose approval enhances our status and self-image and whose censure has the opposite effect – as a sounding board for our own sentiments. More often than not we’ll change our mind to ensure our views fit the consensus, whilst all the time persuading ourselves that we are masters of our own mind and others merely agree with our common-sense view of our surroundings.

Which made my task considerably easier.

“Nigel, I’d love your view on these new commercials we’re proposing”, I’d begin, “I showed them to Colin in Kuala Lumpur last week and he said they were a breakthrough for a company like ours”.

“Yes, It’s about time we stood up for what we believe”, Nigel would agree.

The following week I would talk to Simon,

“Nigel says it’s time we stood up for what we believe”, I said.

“Quite right,” says Simon, “And the way you’ve used our people in the commercial lends it great credibility”

“Simon says using your people in the commercial lends it great credibility”, I’d tell the next guy.

Eventually, I would actually go and see Colin in Kuala Lumpur, with everyone’s feedback in my bag (and with a bit of a lump in my throat).

Every time, after hearing the opinions of his peers, Colin would say – entirely of his own volition,

“This kind of thing is a breakthrough for a company like ours”.

I know you’ll think me underhand and deceptive. But these individuals – 90% of whom knew next to nothing about creating commercials – were genuinely delighted with the decisions they had taken.

And because skilful and talented creative people had crafted the ads in good faith to a brief written by a planner who cared about the company’s commercial success, everything ended extremely happily ever after.

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