Interest, Curiosity and the Client Education Conundrum

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I had the opportunity to attend a day-long session with Brené Brown last year, and among the many powerful takeaways from her talk was my first introduction to a fascinating study from Amanda Markey and George Lowenstein on interest and curiosity. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that, before reading through the research, I didn’t realize there was a fundamental difference between interest and curiosity.

It turns out that, if you agree with Lowenstein and Markey’s conclusions, there is actually a significant difference between the two, and that the distinction can have a powerful impact not only on how we view and implement the pursuit of knowledge for ourselves, but for clients as well.

Lowenstein and Markey said: “We define interest as a psychological state that involves a desire to become engaged in an activity or know more, in general, about a subject. If an individual is interested in pottery, for example, that person may want to sit down and throw pots, or that person may want to know more about the technique, the materials, and the history. Curiosity, in contrast, only arises when a specific knowledge gap occurs, such as, ‘What is the difference between high and low fire pottery?’ Thus, curiosity and interest differ by their objects of desire (specific knowledge vs. general knowledge/activity engagement).”

In other words, to be truly curious about something, you must have a certain level of knowledge about the subject—enough to ask a particular question or questions. For an example, let’s take a look at my initial interpretation of the results of Jackson National’s 2017 Investor Education Survey. Jackson generally runs the survey annually, and releases useful data on investor knowledge and confidence in the U.S.

The key findings from the survey highlight a gap between perceived financial knowledge and confidence (nearly 60 percent of all respondents stated that they did not have the confidence to make appropriate investing decisions) and U.S. investors’ interest level in building their knowledge and confidence (nearly 70 percent of respondents said they are very or somewhat interested in furthering their financial/investing education).

Initially, I looked at this gap as a black-and-white opportunity—if we (the financial services industry) can count on a certain level of interest, we just need to help people find the right resources or help to start educating themselves, right? Then, when they reach the point at which they’re ready for expert help and an adviser relationship, they will take the next step.

Based on the Markey and Lowenstein research, I think the answer is more complicated than that. What we’re talking about is the classic Catch-22 scenario, and it applies directly to both how investors educate themselves and how advisers educate clients. The research suggests that, if investors don’t have the financial knowledge to make appropriate investing decisions, unless they force themselves to understand the basics, they can never be curious enough to answer the fundamental questions about preparing financially for life. In other words, a rudimentary understanding of finance is required for investors (or clients, if they are already in your care) to be curious enough to seek further knowledge.

Thus, while interest remains the baseline (without interest, we are pretty much out of luck), the financial services industry in general and financial planners in particular must take a more active role in convincing clients to take that crucial step toward activating curiosity and the quest for deeper knowledge. As a financial planner, you are likely the primary source for your clients’ financial education, and data from the aforementioned Jackson survey supports that many investors working with financial planners rely solely on their planner when it comes to the sharing of financial knowledge. This is a crucial function of the planner-client relationship, but I believe the Markey and Lowenstein research shows us that it can be a double-edged sword in that too much reliance on the planner may actually reduce clients’ personal interest in or curiosity about financial topics over the long term.

Of course, that’s not to say financial planners should stop offering financial education support to clients. Quite the opposite. But I do think it’s important for planners to make sure that investors are not separating themselves from the pursuit of financial knowledge when they enter into the planning relationship. Planners may need to take on the responsibility of not only providing clients with the proverbial fish, but teaching them how (and why) to fish as well. So, the question becomes, where do we begin?

I wish I could provide a perfect formula on how to motivate clients to master the basics and activate their curiosity, but unfortunately there isn’t a “magic bullet” here. We are all so different when it comes to our current level of knowledge, how we motivate ourselves and even how we perceive what constitutes “the basics,” that to cast a single net designed for universal application would be beyond foolish.

To provide a semi-prescriptive starting point, however, we can look to the Lowenstein and Markey research, which said that the intensity of curiosity depends on importance, surprise and salience.

Importance

To satisfy the first criterion, we need to make clients’ curiosity about financial and investing topics personal so that they will feel important to them. For example, when your clients have children, crafting a will and testament or putting away money for higher education can become an urgent and tangible issue. When an issue becomes directly applicable to our lives, we inherently become more curious.

As a financial planner, you are already adept at tying financial concepts and strategies to a clients’ situation, but the fundamentally fluid nature of “importance” in the context of curiosity is a valuable reminder that a concept or strategy a client had little interest in can suddenly become a focus as a result of a life transition. This knowledge may allow you to pre-empt questions from clients about certain concepts with relevant content, further building the relationship, or provide a useful framework for your prospecting strategy.

Surprise

For surprise, human beings rely on our current understanding of the way things are and use curiosity to test the accuracy of our knowledge. When our frame of reference is broken with new information, we are more likely to dig deeper for even more revelatory insight. Or, as Lowenstein puts it, “the accumulation of knowledge tends to beget the desire for further knowledge.” As mentioned, the element of surprise makes the case for frequently sharing interesting and engaging content with clients in an attempt to spark further interest in a topical area or the world of financial knowledge as a whole.

I think the importance of surprise in sparking curiosity also serves as a good reminder to avoid marketing for marketing’s sake. Instead of sending out something your clients or prospects have already seen or a story they’ve already heard because you are running up against your newsletter deadline, it might make sense to search for or create a new angle on an old story, or to survey your clients on their most burning questions and attempt to answer those in a post. From a blogging perspective, Google always favors quality over quantity, and your readers certainly do too.

Salience

Finally, salience is the degree to which your environment highlights a particular information gap. According to Lowenstein, salience will tend to be high when a question is asked explicitly, and may be “even higher if there is another identifiable and proximate individual who knows the answer.” While not everyone needs or wants expert help when it comes to financial and investing discussions, the importance of salience in enhancing curiosity is an oft-overlooked component of the value of a financial planner.

That someone, somewhere knows the answer to our question is not of great value to us (and can actually decrease curiosity). But if that person is sitting across the table from us, with the added bonus of understanding the most intimate portions of our financial lives, the level of salience increases significantly. As it’s not always easy to find new ways to represent your value as a planner, research on the power of salience could come in handy.

As mentioned, there is certainly not one right way to go about educating clients, and many of you already have an excellent formula that works for you and your practice. That said, my greatest takeaway from Markey and Lowenstein’s wonderful research is the reminder to challenge everything, even the things we think we know best. I think your curious mind will thank you.

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Dan Martin is the director of marketing for the Financial Planning Association®, the principal professional organization for CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER (CFP®) professionals, educators, financial services professionals and students who seek advancement in a growing, dynamic profession. He is an award-winning author with a diverse financial services industry background in marketing and communications. He earned a journalism degree from the University of Denver and his MBA in marketing from the Daniels College of Business.

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