Chocolate Pillow | The Compensation Culture | The Psychology behind the Demands
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The Compensation Culture | The Psychology behind the Demands

11 Jun The Compensation Culture | The Psychology behind the Demands

It is almost unreservedly blatant to every business that operates today, that we live in what can only be described as a ‘Compensation Culture’ – where every problem or issue can seemingly be resolved in the form of monetary compensation – but just why is this so and how can you as a business person understand and hopefully counteract this?

Hailing back several years, I always recall an incident that was pretty severe – a guest in our hotel had used a soap dish (moulded in to the ceramic tiles by the bath) to lift themselves out of a bath.  As they did so, the soap dish shattered – he slipped and badly sliced almost the entire length of his arm as he fell; he then slipped when getting back up and had a severe, and deep, gash down his back.  Needless to say this was a shock to see when he stumbled in to reception to ask for a first aid box.  The guest was patched up until an ambulance arrived and took him to the local hospital.  All through the incident, the guest acknowledged it was their fault and there was no compensation request made, or even muttered.  This was 10 years ago.  I always wonder how the incident would play out now – how many thousands would be paid out because of an accident at the hotel.  We were lucky that year!

The following year we received a compensation request from an ex-employee who broke their nose at work after moving a glass-washing machine without assistance and in violation of the manual handling training they had received – the glass-washer door fell open and landed on his nose.  Their demand – £3000. It was later discovered that the same person had sued almost every place they had been involved in an accident.

There may seem little point to these tales, but there is!  Going back 10 or 15 years, there were few law suits for injury as a result of an accident.  People accepted responsibility if they were at fault and acknowledged an accident as just that, an accident – nowadays there are hundreds of claims a day.  The current advertisement and ‘promotion’ of ‘money-for-accidents’ has created a new type of consumer that can easily crumble the least wary of businesses.  It has also enabled people to defer responsibility for actions; and in some cases has caused people to become ‘compensation trolls’ using accidents and injuries to provide their income by suing companies of all types for any injury received – some cases in the UK even highlight gangs/individuals that deliberately crash cars to get injury compensation.  This is sickening to many people, and immoral to most, but to an increasing number of people it is seen as easy money – but why do people do this?

We could loop through hundreds of theories here (depending how deep you wanted to delve in to the psyche), but I will concentrate on the main few that apply in most cases.

In most adverts for compensation companies, there is a tagline of ‘have you had an accident that wasn’t your fault?’ along with the promise of money – this triggers something in people’s psyche on a very primitive level.  Engendered through culture and humanity is a core requirement for money to survive.  Many people believe that “money = survival”; this promise of money alerts that basic belief.  The statement of ‘accident that wasn’t your fault’ subconsciously infers that the accident was not your fault – when reviewing the incident in your mind, it is common to review what led up to the accident and to attribute different causes.

This sort-of leads me to the psychology of responsibility – if someone accepts responsibility for an accident occurring, then there is unlikely to be a compensation request.  But where does the responsibility truly lay?  It is human nature to defer responsibility for something going wrong; everyone does it every day, whether it be at work or home.  The act of saying you were only late because of the traffic being heavy is actually deferring responsibility – you could have checked the traffic reports and left earlier.  Similarly, if you have an accident (throughout this I will use the example of someone burning themselves on a cup of coffee – as well known due to McDonalds being sued for this), then it is easy to defer the responsibility of the accident to an external factor.  Responsibility is tied with intent – it is generally viewed by everyone that if the result was intended by us, then we are responsible – if I intended to burn myself, then this is my responsibility; but if I did not intend to burn myself then it is someone else’s responsibility.  This passes on to blame.  Blame is tied to punishment – as children we are conditioned that if we are to blame, we will be punished; because of this we try to avoid blame as adults so that we can avoid punishment for wrongdoing – therefore we are all programmed to feel bad if we are at fault for something, and feeling bad is something that no-one enjoys.  To summarise – we shift responsibility to an external object, or person, because we want to avoid feeling bad for being at fault, and avoid being punished.  Think about it this way – the person who is speeding down the road and swerves to avoid a cat and crashes in to another car is unlikely to say ‘sorry I was speeding and unable to stop in time or control my car’ as instead they would be more naturally inclined to defend their actions with ‘I swerved because a cat came out into the road and then you came round the corner in front of me and I couldn’t avoid you’.  This is also deference of control – blaming an external factor beyond your control is easier to emotionally acknowledge and deal with, and is less likely to cause you punishment.

I wonder how many of you are currently reading this with a bit of an epiphany that the above is actually what you do on a daily basis – I do it too and so does everyone – even those who always claim to take responsibility!  Now you know why your kids always blame something else such as the cat or dog – they want to avoid punishment; and as adults, we still do this!

So now we have an understanding of why people see something as everyone else’s fault – so how does this link in to compensation?  Quite easily (in a convoluted way!)  The key part here is the blame – again we have the scenario of someone burning themselves on a coffee.  Put yourself in the scenario from a psychological perspective.  You feel wronged – you have been hurt and that was not your intention when you asked for a coffee.  You knew on a very basic level that being burnt was a risk, however your ongoing drinking of coffee throughout your life has taught you that the risk of being burned is very low – you have been conditioned to believe there is minimal or no risk of burning – you know from experience that if the liquid runs over the top of the cup you will be burned so you keep the cup steady.  Now if you made the coffee, and you poured it in to the cup and you burned yourself, you would be inclined to accept responsibility as you were the one who created the scenario, there were no external factors.  Now if someone else made the coffee and passed it to you, then you spill it and burn yourself, who is to blame?  Is it you, because your social conditioning and life experience tells you the coffee will be hot? Or is it the fault of the person who made and provided the coffee to you and did not tell you it was hot?  Naturally, you assume the latter because you were provided something by them, that caused you injury.  So how does money make this fair?

Fairness is judged relatively, by comparison to our peers and family and what they receive.  This means that what I see as fair, and what you see as fair are two different things – fairness itself is ironically unfair!  The value of fairness is determined by social stimulus and personal values – if you see that everyone else is getting money for being treated badly, then why should you not get the same?  Take hotels as an example – you see that someone else has written a review on TripAdvisor saying they complained and had a full refund and free dinner – if you complain about the same (or similar) issues and do not receive the same, you will feel wronged!

Now lets talk money – money cannot undo a scenario, nor can it fix a broken leg or arm.  But it can provide special equipment or modifications to lifestyle.  Money is also linked to comfort.  Someone with a lot of money is referred to as ‘well-off’ or ‘more than comfortable’ – someone with enough money to survive and some spare is often referred to as ‘comfortable’ – these references all through society actually reinforce that comfort, stability and well-being are linked to finances.  Therefore it is easily linked that monetary compensation will equal more comfortable lifestyle.  Just think that the free nights stay will be some spare money for something else, or that refund of the booking cost and dinner means more money to spend on other things.  That £3000 for an accident will cover the bills for a couple of months (or in some unscrupulous cases just pay for a holiday).  Money is also seen as ‘Reparative Justice’ whereby something is done to repair the damage done to the relationship between the parties; in many cases a simple apology works, but in others it can lead to feeling compensation is necessary.  It is also in some cases ‘Retributive Justice’ whereby you feel wronged and feel bad, so you want the other party to feel the same; and in the case of business, most consumers just see them as money-making machines where the best way to cause pain is to hit them in the pocket with a compensation claim!

So, to summarise everything above:

People naturally look to defer blame for an incident so that they avoid feeling bad; this leads to them assigning responsibility for something to an external factor – this external factor (if it is someone else or a business) is then assumed as having done us wrong.  The wrong is righted according to what is seen as fair (determined by external stimuli and social conditioning).

Seems simple when I put it like that!

Matt Shiells-Jones

Husband, Author, Hotel Manager and ambitious 'old cat lady'

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