Use Psychology To Make Customers And Employees Safer – Forbes

Posted: August 14, 2020 at 5:50 am

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In my last article, I described the negative impact mask requirements have had on customer and employee experience. Enforcing mask rules is a novel conflict zone for employees who never expected to be the mask police. And, even when employees manage to avoid conflict with customers, other patrons may try to force non-compliant customers to change their behavior.

The typical point of conflict is a customer who refuses to wear a mask, even if doing so is suggested by an employee and/or required by law. When some anti-mask customers can turn violent, many companies are justifiably reluctant to put employees at risk by denying service.

Why do some people resist wearing masks, even when health professionals almost unanimously say they are important for controlling virus transmission? Why do these individuals risk denial of service, shaming by others, and perhaps even legal consequences?

As with other aspects of consumer behavior, the reasons mask-avoiders offer justify the behavior, but do not cause it.

People buy emotionally, and they justify their decisions intellectually, is a quote from sales training legend David Sandler. Marketers have understood this for decades, long before the tools of neuromarketing, a.k.a. consumer neuroscience, were able to support it.

The same truism can be applied to those who refuse to wear masks. Some of the rational justifications include:

One can offer sound, science-based counter-arguments to these points, but this never works any better than fact-based persuasion works to change political beliefs. Confirmation bias causes people to accept and emphasize information they agree with and find fault with information that contradicts their beliefs.

Confirmation bias explains why an unknown person on YouTube wearing a white lab coat seems (to some people) to be more authoritative than hundreds of epidemiologists and other well-credentialed experts.

At best, presenting facts will help people who have decided to wear a mask justify their decision to themselves and others.

More than fifty years ago, psychologist Jack Brehm introduced his theory of reactance. His experiments showed that people react strongly when they feel their freedom is threatened or specific freedoms are taken away. People will strive to preserve or regain those freedoms.

While reactance may not drive the behavior of the mask-accepting majority, it clearly does so for those who strenuously reject masks. The memes they use give a clearer view of the emotions underpinning their behavior. Heres one example:

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On social media, mask wearers are shown as compliant sheep, unwilling to protect their freedom. Those who refuse masks, meanwhile, are sometimes portrayed as heroic lions that never bow to authority. These, along with conspiracy theories about the government using the pandemic as a tool to make citizens compliant, all support the idea that reactance is at work. The sentiment is less about masks, and more about pushing back against the demands of those in authority.

Ive been perplexed by the behavior of some people I know. Normally, they wouldnt think of harming those around them. But, they resist wearing masks. These individuals would seem to embrace two conflicting concepts:

These individuals avoid cognitive dissonance with the arguments I mentioned earlier, like masks dont actually work.

This is why mask-shaming is unlikely to change their behavior. Mask-refusers arent necessarily bad people, and they certainly dont think of themselves that way. Simply increasing the pressure on them to mask up will cause even more reactance.

So what CAN businesses do to encourage safe behavior and reduce the chance of conflict for both customers and employees?

While it wont work in every case, one way to get recalcitrant customers to mask up is to reframe the debate.

An anti-mask sentiment Ive often seen is, Im not afraid of the virus. People who are afraid should stay home. A similar one is, Keep the at-risk people protected, the rest of us will be fine. Both arguments frame the problem in terms of the individuals willingness to accept risk.

When an individual has the attitude that, Im brave, and you arent, it places responsibility for safe behavior on others. This might be fine if masks protected the wearer, but in the current pandemic masks benefit other people much more than the wearer.

Reframing the question in prosocial terms, i.e., helping others, may increase compliance. A message like, Your mask protects the people who come to work to serve you, reframes the problem. It reminds the customer that employees dont have the option of staying home or avoiding all customer contact.

Including an image of an employee who is at risk or has vulnerable family members could further personalize the appeal. A picture of a young, healthy employee with a statement like, Angela is here to help you. Shes being careful because her grandmother lives with her creates an easily understood scenario to justify masking up.

While this pro-social framing may help in some cases, its unlikely to be entirely effective. Some customers will cling to their cognitive-bias driven beliefs, like masks dont work or the virus is no worse than the flu.

Thats bad news, but the worse news is that research shows reactance can trump helping others. One study concluded that, increased pressure to aid a person in need at times reduces the individual's willingness to help the person who is dependent upon him. [Emphasis added]

When a behavior is the social norm, most people will adopt it. Today, almost all of us buckle our seatbelts, put infants in car seats, and refrain from smoking in offices. We dont do that because we fear legal consequences, we do that because these behaviors are normal and expected. Those behavior changes were, like wearing masks, initially rejected by some people.

The more mask wearing people see, the more likely they are to conform. The reverse is true as well. If a person not inclined to wear a mask sees other unmasked people in the business, they will be less likely to comply. Even someone who would normally wear a mask might feel odd donning one if everyone else was unmasked.

Social proof is one of Robert Cialdinis seven principles of influence. His and others research shows that this is what others are doing was the most persuasive messaging in such diverse areas as saving energy and collecting taxes.

In Texas, Ive seen compliance rising since masks became a legal requirement in public settings. That compliance isnt due to fear of repercussions - as far as I know, nobody has actually been fined in our city. Rather, it has become a norm. People expect it, everyone else is doing it, and not wearing a mask would be odd.

I wouldnt recommend going as far as the Wisconsin DNR, though, which has told employees to wear masks on Zoom calls, even if they are home alone. The stated purpose is to model safe behavior. But, when people wear masks in situations where there is no chance of transmission, it makes them and the requirement look silly. Instructions like these trivialize an important issue.

There will always be outliers for whom non-conformance is a way of life, of course. Rejecting social norms is their way of life. Nevertheless, a combination of time and gentle messaging will keep almost all customers and employees safe and conflict-free.

Use Psychology To Make Customers And Employees Safer - Forbes

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August 14th, 2020 at 5:50 am

Posted in Sales Training