Why “it’s a regulatory requirement” might not be the best explanation…

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes


Telling people to do something because it is a “Regulatory Requirement” is a widely used technique to drive compliance within organisations.  In this article, I explore why that might not be such a good idea.


One of the fascinating aspects of Behavioural Science is that small changes to an environment can have a massive impact on our decision-making. A good example is Framing; the idea that how things are presented to us will impact how we perceive them.

Photo by pine watt on Unsplash

By understanding how things are “framed” and what impact that has on the target audience, we can look to “re-frame” when the behavioural outcome we’re looking to achieve, isn’t what we expected.

This needn’t be complex. Presenting a medical procedure as having a 90% success rate, feels different from one that has a 10% failure rate, even though they’re the same thing. Offering a discount of 25p discount on cups of coffee when people bring their own cup, elicits a different response from us than when we are charged a 25p tax for not doing so. Here’s how the Royal Navy used it in a recruitment campaign:


By re-framing the nature of the role, they’re looking to attract people who have the aptitude but wouldn’t naturally consider applying.

As I look to bring Science to Compliance, I’m finding lots of examples where re-framing can offer us significant advantages. The language we use matters more than we might think.

Regulatory Requirements

Take the phrase “Regulatory Requirement” (RR). In Financial Services, and in other heavily regulated industries, it is used incredibly frequently as an explanation for why people need to do certain things or not do certain others.  By RR, I don’t just literally mean those words. What I mean is the concept of citing regulation as the main justification for something.

You don’t have to look too far down people’s email inboxes to find requests or tasks which either implicitly or explicitly cite it as a justification.  This ranges from specific wording like:

“In order to comply with Regulation X, you are required to do the following:”

to the more subtle:

“By doing this you will be helping us to meet our regulatory obligations”

or even:

“The results of this will be shared with our regulators”

This technique is so frequently deployed, that it is often hard to tell whether the issue is genuinely a regulatory requirement or if it is just being used as a tool to make people focus in a way that the “taskmaster” thinks they wouldn’t otherwise. Sometimes it genuinely is one. Sometimes it has a basis in what a regulator said but is down to the interpretation of an individual who has been tasked with implementing it. These interpretations can be spot on, or they can be as far from the original intent of the regulator as some soft drinks are from the fruit that is plastered on their packaging.

RR has, therefore, become a catch-all concept that contains elements of “you have to do this” and “don’t question what I’m asking”. I think that’s really dangerous.

That’s not because I think every regulatory requirement is challengeable or pointless. Far from it. The industry I work in has demonstrated on numerous occasions that leaving Firms to their own devices risks producing outcomes that are not in the best interests of society.  Equally, as a former regulator, I know that regulators don’t always get it right. What they try to achieve can misfire, and there are regulations that deliver unintended consequences or which miss their target.

My objection to the concept of using RR as a justification for doing something is because it frames the activity as extrinsically motivated. What do I mean by that? Let’s take a brief detour into the topic of motivation so that I can explain.

Extrinsic vs Intrinsic

Our behaviours can be motivated extrinsically (the “ex” meaning from outside) or intrinsically (from within). Telling someone to do something is using an extrinsic motivator. Making something feel like it is a decision the person has taken themselves is deploying an intrinsic motivator. We all know intuitively that the latter is much more potent than the former.

I’ve previously cited the example of how telling a small child to wear a coat (extrinsic) can make them not want to do it; even if they intended to do so. However, telling them they’ll need to wear a coat and asking them which one they want to wear, it is much more likely to succeed.  It works because the act of allowing them to choose, makes it feel like an intrinsic motivator (“I know I need to wear a coat and I’m choosing the one I want to wear”).  That is more likely to spark this kind of reaction:

Photo by S&B Vonlanthen on Unsplash

All too often, Compliance requirements are framed extrinsically. As a result, we shouldn’t be surprised when the small child inside our target audience occasionally rebels against what they’re being told to do. With that said, let’s get back to RR.

The danger I see in using it as the primary rationale for things we need people to do is that we send a message that the only reason we’re asking for them to be done is that the regulator said we had to. The implicit message is that, in the absence of that requirement, we wouldn’t be doing whatever it is, we’re being asked to.

This creates an “us” and “them”, with the regulator seen as the “bad guy” forcing us to do things against our will; meddling in our world.  I’m reminded of the way “evil” characters are used in children’s stories and the classic line from Scooby-Doo:

“I would have gotten away with it too if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids”

Scooby Doo.png
(c) Warner Bros

Only this time it’s the regulators that are seen as the meddlers. Without their nefarious influence, this school of thinking suggests, we’d be able to do far more. I exaggerate to make a point, but we should consider the fact that the extrinsic motivator is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand,  the rationale for deploying it so often is that it can be incredibly powerful; it explains why parents often resort to “because I told you to” when they want their kids to do something. But, on the other hand, it destroys the positive forces that come from intrinsic motivators and it often feels like a justification of last resort.

You might legitimately ask why this matters?  After all, if it gets people doing what we need them to do, then doesn’t the end justify the means?  Yes and no. I accept that there are certain things that regulators require of Firms and individuals which wouldn’t happen without their interference. I mean that in the literal, rather than the pejorative sense of the word.  Leave market forces to their own devices and you risk monopolies that can become exploitative.  We’ve seen the dangers of Information Asymmetry, where one party to a transaction has greater information about a situation or product than the other party, in my industry. Consumers don’t buy mortgages that often, so it’s not surprising that they know far less about the market than the people selling them. Without regulatory intervention, it is easy to see how consumers might be exploited.

However, there are also large swathes of regulation that force Firms to do things which they should arguably want to do of their own accord. For example, rules that require Banks to understand and manage their risk profile appropriately or hold sufficient capital to ensure they can withstand market shocks. These kinds of rules don’t just act in the interests of society; they also serve to protect shareholders and employees by ensuring that the organisation is properly run on a sustainable basis.

I can, therefore, see that the argument for using extrinsic motivators like RR to encourage compliance with regulations that wouldn’t come naturally to Firms if left to their own devices, potentially has some merit. Though arguably, a business that wants to be sustainable in the 21st century, probably ought to have a business model that factors these into its thinking.

But there’s an even more important reason why we should avoid intrinsic motivators if we can. That is in situations when Compliance has a qualitative aspect to it.

Quality of Compliance

In his book The Law of Good People, Professor Yuval Feldman highlights the importance of considering the concept of “quality” of compliance.  We tend to think of it in binary terms; like a speed limit where you either are or are not driving within it.  However, in many cases, particularly in fields like conduct, it is much harder to codify exactly what we want people to do.

By way of example, he cites whistleblowing as an activity where we implicitly require a level of engagement from the participant.  You don’t want to incentivize everyone to whistleblow, because they’ll do so for the wrong reasons. Instead, you want to incentivize people who find themselves in situations where it is appropriate, to do so for the right reasons. Getting people appropriately motivated to deliver this outcome, is less likely to be achieved through the use of extrinsic motivation. For a whistleblowing programme to be effective, it needs the target audience to be intrinsically motivated. 

At least with whistleblowing, you have the opportunity to review the quality of what people have reported.  Admittedly, you won’t know what hasn’t been reported, but at least you can see whether what has been reported is appropriate.  There are lots of other activities where there is no easy way to assess the quality of Compliance.

Attestations, Surveys and Activity Tracking

A commonly used tool for ensuring compliance with a particular regulation is to ask people to attest that they have complied with it. Whilst this technique does try to make use of the intrinsic motivator of focussing people’s minds on their personal responsibility, it also requires a degree of engagement on the part of the person being asked.

Implicitly, I know that if I’m asked to attest to something, that the main reason the attestation is likely to exist, is that there isn’t an easy way for the person asking for it, to check whether I’ve done what I’m being asked. Because if there was, then they’d use that instead. In many cases, compliance can be verified through spot checks, so there is a form of deterrent. But for the regime to be truly effective, it needs people to feel motivated by more than the risk of being caught by a review.

Surveys are another example where intrinsic motivation is needed. Force me to fill in a survey against my will and the quality of the data I’m likely to give you will be very low. It never ceases to amaze me how organizations obsess over getting as high a response rate as possible.  I would argue that if 30% of your organization don’t want to fill in a survey, then that is high-quality data, that tells you something.  You might have to find out why, but the message is clear. By pursuing that 30% and making them fill in the survey, what you’re effectively doing is taking high quality data (“I don’t want to fill this survey in”) and converting it into potentially low-quality data (“I’m filling this in under duress”) and then co-mingling that low-quality data with the high-quality data that comes from willing survey participants.  Where else would we strive to do that?

Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

The problem here is that you have no way of knowing whether people diligently filled in your survey if they reacted badly to being forced to do it, or whether they did the bare minimum to get it done and just ticked the default options.  When it comes to surveys, quality of Compliance really matters.

Replace the term survey with “timesheet” or “activity tracker” and you can see a similar problem.  Particularly in jurisdictions where employers are not legally able to look at data on any one individual.  Feldman makes the good point that we often seek 100% Compliance for activities where it isn’t really necessary. Or indeed desirable.  I might need it for an attestation, but you could argue that having 70% of a population do a survey might be more than enough to allow me to extrapolate some meaningful conclusions from the data.


For these reasons, I think we need to give careful thought to the times when we deploy RR.  It is all too easy to make it the very first thing we reference in requests, instructions and when explaining the rationale for internal rules.  What I’m suggesting is that we try, whenever possible, not to default to making that the headline rationale for requiring people to do something.  It may be highly appropriate to use RR in situations when intrinsic motivation won’t work; for those times when genuinely the only reason we’re doing something is because a regulator wants us to.  I’m therefore not suggesting we don’t use it; especially as it is sometimes the regulators themselves that require us to do precisely that. Perhaps something for them to also think about…

But using RR often comes at a price that I suspect we don’t always fully contemplate.  That price is that we transmit that we’re only doing it because we have to and that we wouldn’t if we didn’t have to.

That matters, because we all know that the effort we put into things we’re forced into doing, is much less than the effort that we put into things we want to do. By normalising its use, we blunt its effectiveness and potentially detrimentally impact the quality of compliance.

Overuse of RR can also give the impression of laziness; it is far easier to cite a regulation than to try to find intrinsic reasons why people might be motivated to do something.  This fact won’t be lost on the target audience.  Put effort in to motivate them and they’re more likely to respond positively.

I began by highlighting that small changes can make a huge difference.  So when I suggest that we should think about our deployment of RR, what I have in mind isn’t the entire removal of all discretionary references to regulators or regulations. Rather that we think about when we reference it and that we look to change the tone of how we communicate requirements.  For example, if the intrinsic motivators inherent in a requirement are sufficient on their own, perhaps we can relegate the reference to the underlying regulation to a footnote rather than make it the headline?

We all know that good line managers need to own messages, even when they might disagree with or have had no influence in determining what they’re being required to say.  The same thing could arguably be said to apply to regulation.  If we implicitly “blame” the regulator and don’t “own” the requirement, then perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if our people react accordingly.

The views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and are not made in an official capacity.




Friction Part III

Estimated Reading Time: 10 minutes

Welcome to the third part of my blog series on Friction. In Part I, I looked at what Friction is, highlighting that it can be both “good” and “bad”. In Part II covered examples of what Good Friction can achieve. This time, I want to explore what we can do about Friction that is undesirable yet unavoidable.

Key to the methods I will explore is this definition of the term that I featured in Part I:

Source: Friction: Passion Brands in the Age of Disruption

Under this definition, unavoidable Friction occurs when the user’s perception (“the way things should be”) is at odds with reality (“the way things are”). Changing reality is often hard. However, changing perception is something that Behavioural Science (BeSci) is very good at. In this blog, I’ll look at some BeSci techniques that we can deploy to make this happen. Beginning with the simple idea that we don’t like being told what to do.


One way to make people more positively disposed to a particular situation is to increase their perceived level of agency or control.  In her book The Influential Mind, neuroscientist Dr Tali Sharot explains that our brains have a natural desire to know what is going on around us and to exercise control over that:

Our instinct when trying to influence others’ actions is to give orders. This approach often fails, because when people feel their independence has been limited, they get anxious and demotivated and are likely to retaliate. In contrast, expanding people’s sense of agency makes them happier, healthier, more productive, and more compliant.

Increase people's sense of control

For example, giving people an opportunity to advise how their taxes should be allocated increased the likelihood that they would pay them in full. To produce impact, we often need to overcome our instinct and instead offer a choice.

As the cartoon suggests, the experiment she refers to took place in America. Note how she uses the word “advise”; the taxpayers weren’t given actual control over where their taxes would be spent.  However, answering a question that suggested they were being listened to, gave them a sense of control.  Readers with children can test this by instructing them to wear a coat. Even if they intend to wear one, the mere fact they have been told to do so by an adult can often ensure they no longer want to.  A more effective method can be to give them a sense that they have an element of control; don’t tell them to wear a coat, just ask them which coat they would like to wear!

We’ve all been in situations where we’ve felt powerless precisely because we didn’t know, or felt we didn’t know, what was going on. There’s a reason small children (and adults) often ask “are we there yet?” when they’re on a long car journey.  The same principle applies when we start reading a document.

Image result for reading timeYou may have noticed that in common with many other blogs, this one includes an Estimated Reading Time (ERT) metric at the start.  The reason I’ve included this is that telling readers how long something is likely to take them to read, gives them a sense of control and an appreciation of the level of time they will need to commit to the task.  It also negates potential loss aversion associated with starting something that they won’t have time to finish.

In tests I’ve done with ERT, what’s remarkable is that a bigger number (eg. 15 minutes) doesn’t put off anywhere near the number of readers you might expect it to. No-one reads long articles nowadays, right?  Wrong. Obviously some people are deterred, but for the vast majority, telling them how long the article will take them to read has precisely the opposite effect. They might not read it straight away, but because they know how long it takes, they’ll come back to it when they have the time available.

To see how powerful it can be, visit howlongtoreadthis.com, a website that calculates (surprise, surprise) a personalized version of how long it will take you to read a particular book. It does this by allowing users to time how long it takes them to read an actual page of the book in question. Here’s the calculation it did for me with Tali Sharot’s book:

Screen Shot 2019-02-01 at 22.53.17.png

If I know how long I’m going to have to spend doing something, then I can mentally prepare for it. Rory Sutherland cites an example of this in one of his TED talks:

The single best thing the London Underground did in terms of improving passenger satisfaction per pound spent wasn’t faster, more frequent, later running trains, it was putting dot matrix display boards on the platform to tell you how long you were going to have to wait for your next train.

If we know a train is coming in 10 minutes, then we’ll happily wait.  Make us wait with no certainty that a train is coming and we won’t feel anywhere near as comfortable. Though, there are limits to how far this dynamic works. I didn’t feel much satisfaction a few years ago when I arrived on a platform at Victoria station and saw this:


Given I’d already committed to getting the train and I know these signs are generally reliable, I thought I’d wait 3 minutes and see if 53 wasn’t 3 in disguise.  Fortunately, it was, illustrating quite how powerful these boards actually are; I’m so used to them being right, that I’ll even place a favourable interpretation on the information they give me, even if it’s patently unlikely to be true.  Alternatively, it may well be that my knowledge of how long it takes to exit Victoria station told me that investing 3 minutes in finding out, was a worthwhile investment.


Another way of making unavoidable Friction feel less onerous is to break it up so that the user doesn’t perceive the full impact in one go. Anyone who has tried to lose weight will know that crash diets don’t generally work. What does work is to break down big tasks into lots of manageable smaller ones; whether that’s getting into running by doing a “couch to 5k” program that gradually introduces the discipline of running or de-cluttering your home by following Netflix star Marie Kondo’s step-by-step methods.

Here’s how Facebook use chunking when you first sign up for their service.  It is critical for them to ensure that new users quickly connect with existing users; otherwise, there won’t be a network for them to interact with.  So to make this easy, they chunk the process of profile building:

user flow: facebook

It would also be entirely feasible for Facebook to put all of the steps on one page. Instead, they chunk the process to make it feel much less onerous.

Tech designers also use chunking when they deploy something called progressive disclosure. You’ll recognise it from menus on phones or computer screens.  At each stage, you’re given just enough information to help you navigate something far more complex. Like this example from Apple’s mobile operating system:

turning on Wi-Fi on an iOS device is simple. Firstly the Settings screen focuses the customers on finding the right feature. The word Wi-Fi becomes the minimum amount of data needed. Even on the Wi-Fi screen available networks aren’t displayed until Wi-Fi is switched on. Why show customers available networks if their Wi-Fi isn’t even switched on?


The journey moves from an abstract location (Settings) to somewhere specific (Wi-Fi). It requires a few extra taps to get to the feature, but it reduces the amount of thinking needed in each step.


Progressive Disclosure can also be used to ensure that users only have to make more complex choices if they want to. For example, if we’re going to print a document, we can just hit the Print icon and accept the standard settings for things like colour, balance, and page layout. Or we can avail ourselves of a broader range of options if, and only if, we really want to. As a result, most users can proceed with relative ease, while those who want the additional optionality can easily find it.


If a task can’t be split up, then we can give the user a sense of progression as they work their way through something. It’s why Progress Bars like this one are often seen on websites and apps:

(c):  https://dribbble.com/krishanpal

It’s particularly powerful where the task is something the user is doing for the first time or doesn’t do that frequently.  A lack of familiarity will naturally increase anxiety on the part of the user.  Telling them where they are in a process helps deal with that.

Another technique we can deploy with unavoidable Friction is to try to shift it to another point in the process where the user might have a different perception of it. The basic principle here is that Friction that is present in one part of a process might feel entirely different if placed in another. To see this in action, I want to visit the Golden Arches.

Defer or front load friction

In recent years McDonald’s has been introducing digital kiosks like these to its restaurants to allow customers to place their order via a touchscreen:

(c) Wall Street Journal

There are many advantages to this from a customer perspective.  You can discretely order large quantities of food(!), you are given options to customise your meal in a way that you are unlikely to get when ordering from a person and it’s a quicker process.  But it also helps McDonald’s to manage Friction.

Firstly it breaks up the lines that would usually form in front of a counter.  As a result, it is difficult for customers to see how many other people are waiting in front of them, thereby removing a potential source of Friction at times when the line might appear to be long.

Secondly, the kiosks remove the anxiety that customers often feel when they are required to pick a line to stand in. We’re all familiar with being forced to choose a line and then watching to assess whether or not we’ve made the right decision. The kiosk eliminates the long lines at the counter and guarantees a much shorter average wait time.

Thirdly, at times when it is busy, the kiosks help remove the pressure that people often feel when there is a long line behind them, and they need to make what feels like a quick decision as to what to order. Even at the busiest times, there is unlikely to be a lengthy line at each kiosk. Hence people feel more relaxed and are able to fully assess the choices available to them.

Finally, it locks in the customer’s purchasing decision in very quickly; they are committed to making the purchase very soon after entering the restaurant and the Friction involved in   As with the London Underground example, people are happy to wait for something, if they know that something is happening.

Front-loading friction is also a technique commonly used by subscription services which offer a free trial.  However, to activate the trial, users are required to give their credit card details which then allows the service provider to start the paying subscription without having to pester the user who might then choose to walk away. This is so prevalent that Mastercard recently announced it would be banning the practice for certain transactions. 

Of course, the risk with using kiosks or front-loading a requirement to enter credit card details is that it might put off potential customers.  Either those who don’t like the idea of entering payment details in the context of something that is supposed to be free, or those who find the idea of placing an order via a kiosk to be intimidating or unacceptable.  Which is where the next form of Friction reduction comes in.

Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt

A common form of Friction comes from the user’s perception of a particular process or product.  Especially when that process or product is new to them.  We can see a good example of this where elderly people are scared of new technology, perhaps insisting that they don’t “need” to understand it when in reality, they’re intimidated by it.

Designers have cottoned on to this and factored it into their thinking.  What results is something called a Skeuomorph, which Don Norman explains in his highly recommended book The Design of Everyday Things :

“Skeuomorphic is the technical term for incorporating old, familiar ideas into new technologies, even though they no longer play a functional role. Skeuomorphic designs are often comfortable for traditionalists, and indeed the history of technology shows that new technologies and materials often slavishly imitate the old for no apparent reason except that is what people know how to do.

An excellent example of this, are the icons we see on computer screens, smartphones and even Apple watches:


On the black Watch, we can see what Apple calls the “digital crown” (the round red button on the side).  It’s a design they’ve borrowed from analogue watches (where it serves the purpose of winding up or setting the time).

On the rose gold Watch, the icons used to give us the option of taking or rejecting Kathy Chen’s call are images of a traditional landline phone.

Given this is a brand new digital product, Apple could have chosen entirely new designs for those features.  But they opted not to because one of the benefits of skeuomorphic design is that it gives users a sense of familiarity which means they feel more comfortable using the product.  What might seem like an unnecessary appropriation of retro design, actually does something rather smart that’s highly relevant to the topic we’re looking at; it reduces Cognitive Friction on the part of the user.  Changing to a new device or technology requires effort.  By making something resemble something we’re familiar with, it significantly reduces the Friction associated with the transition.

In a blog on their website, 99Designs highlights a skeuomorph from Ancient Greece:

Notice the repetitive cubes which ornament the seams of this Greek structure. These cubes (known as dentils) were placed there to create the illusion of wooden rafters that were used to support the roof in old buildings.


Because buildings in Greece were made out of wood before marble, we can speculate that architects may have been trying to contain or emulate a shape that was familiar. Imitating wood in marble structures may have helped invite people to use a new technology.

This makes perfect sense.  After all, if you’re not used to seeing a marble structure, then the one thing you’ll probably be most concerned about is whether the roof is secure.

As Don Norman points out, the inclusion of skeuomorphs can have a downside in that it sometimes serves to simply perpetuate existing friction. Take the humble QWERTY keyboard.  The reason the keys are in this order has nothing to do with it being the most efficient way to enter data, yet we persist with it because it would take a brave manufacturer to take the step of designing something with no backward compatibility from a human perspective.  Even Apple hasn’t dared to do so…yet!

For more on how QWERTY came to be the default, I recommend this excellent article in Smithsonian Magazine and this 2 minute BBC video entitled Why do we use a QWERTY keyboard anyway?

The next method I want to cover uses a straightforward premise; if we can’t remove or reduce Friction, then let’s hide it.


The technique of disguising Friction is known as masking. It’s been around for a long time; restaurants that are incredibly busy and not able to deliver food as quickly as customers might expect will provide snacks or drinks “on the house” to keep people occupied while they wait.  Or, in the case of Topa, a restaurant in San Sebastian in Spain, they serve an Ikea style guacamole which somehow manages to make the idea of “prepare it yourself’ seem attractive and worth paying regular restaurant prices for.  I know, because I did!


It’s widely deployed in the digital world as well.  Websites use graphics like this:

Upload ux ui garven colin upload loading gif animation cloud button check icon
(c) Colin Garven

This isn’t just a distraction, it gives the impression that something is going on behind the scenes. Masking can also work by changing the form Friction takes.  Here’s how one media company is doing it.

UK radio broadcaster Chris Evans has just moved from BBC Radio 2 to Virgin Radio which, unlike the commercial-free BBC, is paid for by advertisements.  To attract Evan’s old listeners to his new station, Viring has struck a deal with Pay TV provider Sky to provide sponsorship which would mean that the show didn’t need to have ad breaks.

Image result for chris evans virgin
Source:  Press Gazette


In an interview with Campaign magazine, Scott Taunton, the CEO of the Wireless Group that owns Virgin Radio explained that:

“The genesis of the deal [with Sky] is this isn’t vastly different from what Chris was doing on his Radio 2 show.

“When you listened to his [Radio 2] programme, it didn’t have traditional 30-second commercial spots, but there were many promotions for BBC content.”

Taunton pointed out how the BBC has more than 50% share of all UK radio listening and although it carries no ads, it does use its own airtime to carry frequent BBC promos “to extend the brand of their products and the content that they produce”.

He stressed that neither Virgin Radio nor Sky wanted the promotional content for Sky to be “onerous” for listeners.

“Many guests [who are planned for his new show] aren’t involved in Sky in any shape or form,” Taunton said.

Having no ad breaks should help to persuade some of Evans’ nine million Radio 2 listeners to move to Virgin, according to Taunton.

“The ad breaks may have been a barrier to them coming to us,” he explained.

In other words, the ad breaks were a form of Friction. By replacing the advertising with sponsorship, Virgin have effectively masked it.

The other thing Taunton does in the interview is to seek to position the “promotional content” Evans will need to deliver for Sky as being on a par with that which he used to do for the BBC.  This is a technique called Re-Framing and helpfully, is the next method I want to look at.


Re-framing works by presenting information differently, to highlight alternative aspects of the situation or decision.  By literally changing the user’s frame of reference, their perspective on a particular matter can be altered.  This letter to The Times newspaper illustrates it beautifully:

Screen Shot 2018-10-07 at 16.19.44.png

Risks can be re-framed to give a completely different perspective:  saying that something risks losing 10 out of 100 lives is likely to be interpreted differently than something that offers the opportunity to save 90 out of 100 lives.  Even though the underlying facts remain the same.  We feel differently about meat that is 95% lean and meat that is 5% fat, although they are exactly the same thing. Offering someone a £10 reward for doing the right thing or a £10 penalty for doing the wrong thing, feel different even though the underlying economics are the same.


Here’s another interesting example from Rory Sutherland about how re-framing was used on him by an airline:

I was on a plane taxiing to the airport recently when the pilot said something I’d never heard before. “I’ve got some bad news and some good news,” he said. “The bad news is that we haven’t been able to get an air bridge, but the good news is that the bus will take you straight to passport control, so you won’t have far to walk.”

It suddenly occurred to me that this previously unspoken upside of bus transfer was always true; sadly, no-one had told us before. We churlish passengers just assumed that we were supposed to resent the bus. Now, as I had two heavy bags, I suddenly felt grateful for the bus transfer. The pilot was a genius.

Re-framing can also be used to change the user’s perception of whose fault the Friction is.  This can be seen in a clever (devious?) trick deployed by Facebook, which also demonstrates the lengths tech companies will go to, to influence us.  The images below show two different designs for icons which the iPhone version of the Facebook App would display if it were having difficulty loading:


As tech blogger Rusty Mitchell explains in this blog, what Facebook discovered was that:

when their users were presented with a custom loading animation in the Facebook iOS app (left) they blamed the app for the delay. But when users were shown the iOS system spinner (right), they were more likely to blame the system itself.

By replicating the icon that Apple uses to signal a delay, Facebook is trying to give the impression that it’s not their fault, but rather the fault of Apple. It may be a 21st-century approach, but the technique it uses isn’t. Blaming someone else when something goes wrong is one of the oldest tricks in the book.

In the next blog in this series, I’ll look at how we can apply what we’ve learned so far, in the cause of managing Human Risk.