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Mind of Jacka: Why, How, and Repeated Repetition

Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Nov 16, 2023

Did you ever have that friend in college, the one who took Psych 101 and, for the next year or two, suddenly knew everything about psychology and spent their time explaining everything that was wrong with everyone, including you? Especially you?

I’m currently suffering from “Psych 101 Syndrome,” the gathering of just enough information on a subject to make one think they are an expert — an expert to such a degree that they cannot help but share their brilliance with others. And, since I am suffering from the syndrome, you get to suffer, too. Because I recently learned about a thing called Construal Level Thinking (CLT) and it is fascinating. I’ve read almost three papers on the subject, so I must be an expert. And why shouldn’t I share?

I think there are valuable learnings and takeaways for internal audit within this theory — ways to understand our clients, ourselves, and our reactions — that can make us more effective. At this point, most of this is theoretical, but practical value may lie within. And, again, I barely know what I’m talking about. But there is something important in all this. And it may lead to important insights related to how we do our work.

Which leads me to the subject of ethics. In particular, why are we inundated with constant requests and requirements to be involved in repetitive, redundant, reiterative ethics training? Why do organizations make their employees go through recurring training sessions? Why do professions require a couple of hours of ethics training? Haven’t we heard it all before? Don’t we already know this stuff? What’s the point? (We will not be going down the road of those who have been found to cheat on ethics exams — that’s a discussion for some other document.)

And that is where CLT may come into play. To understand why, I need to share with you just about everything I know on the subject. (Don’t worry, that won’t take more than a paragraph or two. Psych 101 Syndrome, remember.)

The basic premise of CLT is that psychological distance is linked to how we perceive things and how we respond. Psychological distance is generally characterized in four areas — when it occurs (time distance), where it occurs (physical distance), to whom it occurs (sociological distance), and whether it will occur (hypothetical distance). The further the psychological distance, the more theoretical our approach to the event. The closer the psychological distance, the more practical our approach.

Here's a simple example. A few months ago, I started planning a trip to Iceland for this summer. Accordingly, the focus was on the broad concepts and generalities — the beauty of the landscape, the geysers and waterfalls, the opportunity to see something never seen before, having a good time, etc. As the time is approaching, my focus is moving from generalities to practical issues — how do we get there, where do we stay, what do we visit. And some of those practical decisions may reduce or eliminate the general ones I focused on last year.

In this case, the time element of psychological distance changes focus from the higher level to the lower level. Similar examples can be found with all the elements. We respond in a more specific manner when thinking about our house versus a house in another country (physical), when working with someone in our department versus someone in another organization (sociological), and when we are sure something will happen versus when we have no assurance (hypothetical distance). Long-term focuses on “why;” short-term focuses on “how.”

Of course, that is only the surface of what CLT is and what it means. And there is interesting research being done around these concepts. In one study, participants were told either how or why they would be involved in an activity. That activity was holding a handgrip as long as they could in order to obtain self-relevant information. The longer they held the grip, the harder it was to squeeze, but the better the information.

Results? If the participants had been told why they would be engaged in the activity, they held the handgrip longer (high-level construal) than if they were told how they would be engaged (low-level construal.)

So, here is my CLT 101 assessment. If people are confronted with the why — the high-level engagement — they will be more likely to act in accordance with that “why.” And the more they are reminded of the why, the more likely they are to maintain that high-level approach and continue the desired action.

If true (again, the preceding paragraph was written by someone deep in the thralls of Psych 101 Syndrome), then that explains a phenomenon we often encounter during our audits. When we can explain to those doing the work how their tasks relate to the process — how they contribute to the success of the processes — they are more likely to do a better job. You have revealed the why rather than the how.

But, back to that whole ethics thing. Is this the reason (whether any of us knew it or not) successful ethics training requires reaffirming things we already know about ethical behaviors? By continually reminding people of the why, does it result in people continually seeing the broader perspective and being more likely to focus on ethical activities?

If true, then that provides a reason why we shouldn’t complain about the seemingly endless training we go through. (And I freely admit I’ve been one of the greatest detractors to this approach.)

But it also means we need to take a role in ensuring that this approach is being used in our organizations. Many years ago when I worked at Farmers Insurance, we had a very good ethics policy and tone at the top. Part of the new employee orientation included an ethics session, and we in internal audit were given the opportunity to deliver this. However, where the organization may not have done all it could was that there was no annual reaffirmation of the policy. Yes, we repeatedly got information on gifts and gratuities, and proprietary information protocols. But nothing reinforcing the why — the role of ethics in the organization. Again, it was a strong ethical atmosphere, but even the strongest can be made stronger.

Now, I may be going too far afield with all this. But I think the research in this very strange area is already providing valuable insights into how we do our audit work. (Let’s not even get into the idea that adding color to reports would make them more accessible; there is research that might support this.) And, at the very least, it does point out that, in any situation, knowing why is just as important as knowing how.

At least, that is what one sufferer of Psych 101 Syndrome believes.

Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU

Co-founder and Chief Creative Pilot, Flying Pig Audit, Consulting, and Training Services (FPACTS), based in Phoenix.