Marshmallow Test and Insurance Marketing

I spent the last week reading up “The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel”. And while the book is a fascinating summary of key findings (and some of its applications) from Walters more than three decades of research, I found some of it is relevant for how we look at Insurance Marketing and Sales.

What is the Marshmallow Test

Walter’s team designed a test for pre-schoolers where the kids were asked to pick their favourite treats from Oreos, marshmallows etc. One of the treats was placed in a tray in front of the kid on a table. The table had a bell, which the kid could ring to bring back the researcher. There was another tray which had two of the same treats, on the same table. The kid was told, that the researcher needs to step out. If the kid wants to bring back the researcher she can just ring the bell, but then he/she gets just one treat. On the other hand, if the kid waits for the researcher to return on her own, she could have two treats.

As one would expect, there were all sorts of experiences that were witnessed in this experiment – from kids who waited easily, to those who found it very painful, to even those who ate the cream from all three Oreos and kept it back as if they had not been touched at all :-).

Walters team ran these tests and tried to understand how the human mind manages self-control, Takes decisions which can postpone instant gratification. What techniques work and which ones fail, consistently. And in all of these interesting findings, I found these as most relevant for Insurance Marketing.

Me Vs Them, Now Vs Future – HOT & COOL Minds

In multiple versions of the tests it was discovered that when asked, whats the logical thing to do for someone who is given the option of 1 treat now vs 2 in the near future. Every kid said that any smart one would wait. And interestingly when the same kids were asked, what would you do – most of them responded by saying “I would take the one treat”. Walter believes that this is due to what he calls the HOT and COOL brain system getting activated. When its a hypothetical situation that involves someone else, the cool mind takes over – it is good at coming up with rational and logical answers and hence every one knows that we should wait. But when the situation involves us and in the present, the hot mind takes over. This is where it becomes tough to manage the temptation.

The book talks about another experiment conducted by Hershfield, where in participants (in their mid twenties) were asked to create a digital avatar of themselves. For one set of participants, they were shown their regular avatar and asked how much would they invest in retirement planning. And the other group was shown their own aged avatar (aged mid-sixties) and asked the same question. Surprise surprise, those who saw their future self said they would save 30% more than those who saw their normal self.

marshmallow test insurance marketing
Source: HBR (link below)

Read about this interesting study on how we make better retirement planning decisions here on HBR.

This tells me few things (& I would love to hear what you read into the findings)

  1. Insurance purchase decisions are very similar to the Marshmallow test conditions. You forego immediate spends for deferred benefits.
  2. Walter discovered that the specific tactics that were adopted by each kid who waited (for the better rewards) fell into a generic category – Cool the now, heat the future. Which means, reduce the temptations of the immediate future and build temptations around the choice of waiting. Sounds logical, and there are good insights for Insurance sales and especially renewals. Buying on monthly installments is easier as the psychological barrier is 12 times higher than when buying an annual policy. Auto-renewal (Standing Instructions or Auto Debit) is better for persistency, as the consumer is not subjected to the same choices every year.
  3. Personalization – Creating Insurance ads that showcase a happy retired life may not trigger purchase decisions, because the consumer may or may see himself in the lead actor of the TV ad. If he doesn’t, chances are he understands the theory of why insurance is needed, but when presented by a choice to buy, he would forego. And this infact has been the experience of most life insurance products. We have only moved a step in this direction with calculators and personalized models for generating scenarios. But they are far from effective in building a true connect with the future self of the user. Calculators and models talk to the cool mind, what we need are ways to get the buyer involved actively in the future self. And decide now in favor of the future self or future selves of his/her dependents.
  4. I see a bright future for digital in Insurance marketing – we have been going at it in the wrong way. Cheaper term plans is not the only opportunity here. Disintermediation and cost-saves is just one slice. The Insurance agent was selling successfully not only coz of the trust & proximity he has with customers. Maybe he can narrate stories from closer home, talk to the customer by giving vivid examples and building scenarios where the customer can easily imagine himself and his family.

Like all interesting studies on behavioral economics and psychology, I feel Marshmallow Test is a great set of hypotheses to bring into the marketing themes and design of campaigns.