There’s an informal rule in journalism: put too many numbers in an article, and readers will drop like flies. A similar phenomenon might also be at work when someone looks at a Social Security statement filled with numbers. In a recent experiment, a friendlier approach proved effective in helping people process this information: tell a story.
Researchers at the Center for Economic and Social Research at the University of Southern California created a fictional 3-minute video of a 62-year-old man talking with a financial adviser about retirement. The researchers showed it to workers between 50 and 60 years old. Here’s one exchange from the video:
Advisor: [Social Security has] a tradeoff: you can decide to claim earlier. In that case, you would have a lower monthly benefit, but you’d get to enjoy these benefits for a longer period.
Worker: So if I claim sooner, I get less money per month?
Advisor: That’s right.
This non-numerical approach clearly had an impact. After seeing the video or reading the vignette on paper, the subjects accurately answered more than 90 percent of the true-false questions about Social Security’s mechanics, compared with just 78 percent accuracy by the people who didn’t see a vignette. The results of this experiment, the study concluded, could help inform the Social Security Administration on how to “communicate these complex concepts to the public.”
You can find the full article at Squared Away Blog and the research paper here.