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Blending Science and Comedy to Fix The Fault in Employee Defaults


By Kelly Leonard and Linnea Gandhi

We are complete and total nerds when it comes to the blending of behavioral science, improvisation and comedy. Although we arrived to this nerdom from very different paths, we both see how the rich and powerful insights that have bubbled up in academia in the last few decades can be super-charged with improvisational pedagogy and comedy.

So it was with great delight that we recently came upon an opportunity to take our ideas out of the lab and off the stage and put it into the hands of a client.

It all started with a human observation: when individuals go through open enrollment for benefits at their employer, they tend to take the easiest path. In companies where Human Resources has provided a default option, employees tend to take it; of course, this means HR must navigate the complexities of market options and employee needs carefully. And where a default is not provided, employees themselves sift through reams of dense information, figuring out tradeoffs in premiums, deductibles, coverage amounts, etc. across a variety of insurance products, and they—like many of us—end up confused, overwhelmed, and sometimes not choosing any protection at all. It is a situation ripe for human error, by both HR and employees.

And exactly in this human error is where we saw an opportunity for comedy and behavioral science to blend together.

Comedy may be many things, but most of it is rooted in a recognition of our basic human behavior, and often our bad human behavior. Likewise, behavioral science provides an explanation of and remedy for this same bad human behavior, or error, with smarter environmental design.

Married together, comedy and behavioral science can open all of us to accepting our own errors and seeing a path forward for helping each other overcome those errors, often through simple redesigns of our environments.

This was ever apparent in our recent collaboration with Unum–a provider of supplemental insurance on the forefront of applying behavioral science and comedy for good–to tackle the human error in the open enrollment process, specifically around disability insurance.  

The Unum team saw a funny pattern in the data: individuals were more likely to have life insurance than disability insurance, despite the fact that their odds of dying early are far lower than the odds of getting injured and having a long period off of work. Why might this occur? One behavioral explanation is that people can imagine dying early, whereas the various ways they may incur some injury preventing them from coming to work regularly are less top of mind, so they misestimate the probabilities. As a result, many individuals lack sufficient disability coverage; if they get in an accident, they need to draw down on their savings, turn to friends or family, or come to work and underperform instead of recuperating at home.

Further, the Unum team saw that employees were inclined to take up defaults set by HR, as apparent in data on 401 k plans; take-up was far higher when employees were automatically enrolled to save for retirement. As noted before, behavioral science explains this with our human tendency to go down the easiest path.

Recognizing the high cost both individuals and their employers face from insufficient disability coverage as well as the power of defaults, Unum partnered with TGG Group to put the two together. Employers needed to realize how powerful their default benefits package was in influencing employee behavior, and thoughtfully reconsider what those defaults were. And more specifically, if they deemed appropriate for their employee population, they needed to make enrollment the default option for disability just as with retirement savings.

But how to get the message across? No one wants to be told they’re making the wrong decision – employees and HR professionals alike. And that is where the comedy came in.

Knowing that few would want to listen to a psychology lecture or a dry list of facts on insurance, Second City Works, the B2B arm of Second City developed a short, funny video to illustrate the power of the defaults which employers set and the importance of considering disability insurance as one of those defaults.

We laugh at things because they are surprising but true, human error included. In this video, we see characters in the office who are working against what’s good for them. Why is this funny? Because we recognize ourselves in the character’s unfolding in front of us. We see ourselves eating badly or taking absurd shortcuts or choosing a default merely because it is easy and sitting right in front of us.

And when we laugh at things, at these human errors, they stick.

Comedy has a way of informing us without shame. When we are able to laugh at our own shortcomings, we aren’t simultaneously experiencing the inertia of judgement and scorn. Instead, our laughter let’s us acknowledge the problem and make the mental note to fix it.

We think there’s a bright future in the blending of behavioral science, improvisation and comedy. In this case, we took a client’s problem, applied the knowledge of behavioral science to understand why the problem existed and used the vehicle of comedy to communicate our findings so that individuals and groups can make that problem go away.

Take a look at our collaboration here

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