We Are Living Through A Massive Social Experiment – Just Not The One You are Thinking

Living through weeks of our social distancing lockdown, I have been thinking a lot about the collective toll it is taking on us. The separation from loved ones in nursing homes is on the top of my mind as my father passed away the day after Easter following several months in the memory care unit of an assisted living facility. I think of my friends who are single or divorced living by themselves, who have virtually no face-to-face interaction with any family on a daily basis. And I think of all the young people in the middle of college or just out who had cut the cord from their parents, were building their network of friends and now have been thrust back in time, living at home and cut off from the people they had begun to depend upon for social life. We are human beings and we depend on social interaction for our mental health and, frankly, our survival. So yes, we are definitely deep into a massive social experiment, the consequences of which could ripple for a generation.

I’m not only talking about the 6 weeks of social distancing though. We are nearly 15 years into a social experiment that is absolutely affecting the way we live, work, interact and engage with each other. And significant data suggests it’s not going very well. This 6-week lockdown is just an exaggerated version of it.

Could it serve to wake us all up to the slow reality we have been accepting, like lobsters in a boiling pot of water, of technology displacing workers and our addiction to smartphones? I for one hope so.

The Happiness Lab Instead of Unhappy News

I have really tried in a conscious way to filter information that is entering my brain during the last two months. I have literally not watched a total of five minutes of television news of any kind since March 15th. I’ve chosen to read news from multiple sources that provide a brief summary. I’ve also found a couple reliable data sources with no opinion so I can see for myself precisely what is happening during the crisis. I turned off the tv because I knew what would be reported, I cannot do anything about it, and I calculated it would not have a positive effect on my mental health. Cable news is now virtually paralyzed by covering the virus 24/7 with a scrolling tally of the infected and dead. In addition, they have nearly disregarded every other news story in the country that might be relevant to either informing us about what else is happening or educating us about other stories we should be paying attention to.

My alternate choices have been an intentional distraction from the virus. One such podcast I listen to while I walk or exercise has been Dr. Laurie Santos’ ‘The Happiness Lab’. More scientific than sappy, the Yale professor of psychology educates listeners about the science of happiness and how oftentimes our brains trick us into thinking that certain things will bring us satisfaction or joy when actually they deliver the opposite. In one episode, she talks to a financial planner for the ultra-wealthy that testifies that huge sums of money definitely does not guarantee happiness.  It references the study that shows ‘money’ and ‘happiness’ track directly up until an income of about $75,000 / year, where happiness tends to level off while income continues to increase.

In another episode, Dr. Santos talks to the inventor of the ATM machine and illuminates one of the moments at which our society began to replace human interaction while performing common, regular tasks with machines, and the probable impact that is having on society. In another episode she talks about experiences and the effect that sharing them with someone else has on enjoyment. Research suggests that people would rather share an above average experience with another person, than witness a spectacular one alone. That shouldn’t surprise as at our core, humans are social creatures who crave community.

She also touches on the many ways handheld technology has impacted so many elements of our society and how we live our lives. This one particularly rang true for me, as people my age (I’m 52) grew up completely without cell phones, apps, and the internet but are young enough to now be required to adapt to it in order to stay productive and relevant.

Dr. Santos is not preachy but provocative. I cannot recommend this highly enough in your efforts to stay, or get, sane during this crisis.

We are 13 Years Into the Experiment

One could argue that the starting gun for how technology transformed our daily life fired in 2007 when Apple introduced the iPhone. This handheld computer with hundreds of downloadable applications designed to ‘make our lives easier’ only took a few years to become ubiquitous. We didn’t know it at the time, but fairly rapidly we adopted this phone as an extension of every part of our daily life. Prior to that, we were just carrying cell phones that replaced home-based phones. But we were at least still talking to each other. Just a few years earlier, Facebook launched in early 2004, which began the new era of technology influencing social interaction. Many other social media platforms have followed over the years since, but the iPhone is what took it off of our desktop and put it in our pockets or in our hands on a non-stop basis.

Let me pose a question: Is your life better because you have an iPhone or smartphone with social media connectivity, search engine access and the ability to text instead of talk every minute of every day?

I’m not suggesting that no benefit has been derived from this advancement. And I will admit that I’m a user and on many of the platforms. But I’m talking about on the whole – does the good outweigh the bad?

It is not news that tech companies build platforms designed to addict people to them. That is actually their business model, despite what some CEOs may say about making our lives better. This is different than companies that build sticky products or build brand loyalty through excellent service. These companies are mining data to find what drives addictive behavior and then replicating it. While this is legal, as we live in a free market and make choices every day, it is not very ethical. Just don’t be fooled into thinking they are looking out for your mental health.

As a result, we are raising children with historically high levels of depression. There has been a record increase in levels of psychological distress and anxiety that began to tick up and has increased constantly since 2008. Much of it is linked to social media use, with acute increases among teenage girls.

The point of all this is to say that we have been experimenting with social distancing for well over a decade now. Some of it has been intentional, and some of it unconscious. We have been trading physical or actual social interaction for technology or machine replacements in many different aspects of our lives – Amazon vs. retail, self-checkout vs. clerks, online banking vs. bank tellers, automated attendants vs. actual human customer service people, headphones vs. conversations on mass transit, social media vs. connecting or experiencing in person. Even watching movies at home used to involve physically going to Blockbuster. Or video gaming used to be a social event at the neighborhood arcade.

Some might conclude that much of this is a step forward and maybe it is. But I keep going back to Dr. Santos’ podcast on research that indicates our brain sometimes tricks us into thinking that if we get this particular something it will make us happy, only to learn that it does the opposite.

This Bank Still Answers the Phone

Our firm, Neos Marketing, was recently hired to conduct a customer satisfaction survey for a small, private, family-owned bank in Houston. We had been consulting with them off and on for 5-7 years, but they have been in business in the market for well over six decades. Our industry and competitive research led us to believe they needed to invest heavily in technology to be able to compete with larger competitors and survive the dramatic change happening in the banking business.

This bank has a small but very loyal customer base. They had actually been investing heavily in customer service training, team building and relational skills, and one particular outdated skill – answering the phone. When you call each of their branches, a person still answers and greets you.

We custom-built the survey questionnaire around the Net Promoter Score methodology, with a couple of management team members from the bank assigned to the project. We then delivered it electronically to over a thousand of their clients, got the feedback with a 22% response rate, and then crunched the numbers.

Do you know what we discovered? People really like this bank. And not just a little… a lot. When comparing them to virtually every other bank in the country, they rank among the very best. More than 8 out of 10 customers said they would absolutely recommend them to a trusted friend or colleague. And among the features of the bank that is the most important to their satisfaction: their people. 9 out of 10 said this was the most important factor.

Of course there are a myriad of businesses where people and customer service are important. But this one is in banking, an industry under pressure to become more efficient, adopt technology, streamline operations and replace people as much as any other. And yet, here is this bank prioritizing customer service, answering the phone, and greeting people when they walk in the branch with a receptionist right up front getting the highest scores we’ve ever seen in a survey for doing the opposite of what all the trends and logic is telling them to do.

It is Still Our Choice

Disruptive technology is in our hands and here to stay. It is absolutely affecting our lives in ways we don’t yet understand and probably couldn’t comprehend a generation ago. We know it has changed our behavior in positive and negative ways. It absolutely has made us less social, and that fact has influenced our society. We have been agreeing to these measures, a little at a time, over the last dozen years. I’m fond of an old saying: ‘The secret of life is not getting what you want, but still wanting it once you get it.’

Sometime in March, we were forced to stay home and distance ourselves from virtually everyone we knew. Maybe in a strange way, this was a glimpse of our future unless we choose to change the track we are on.