I used to be a claim adjuster. Now I just play one on TV.
Well, it’s not really TV—it’s a classroom, and instead of handling claims myself, I teach adjusters and adjusters-wannabe how to handle them. And while what I teach them about laminate floors and drywall repairs and not falling off a roof are very important things (especially, mind you, that last one), it might be true the most important thing I teach them is how to treat the policyholder they are taking care of.
I tell them that we can teach them how to interpret a policy contract, and I can teach them how to manage their caseload. I tell them that managers will be patient with them, to a point, if their estimates have errors, as long as they are open to critique and fix it on the next one. But I tell them that the thing that will get them sent home before they’ve had a chance to even recoup their travel expenses if they get deployed to work a catastrophe is if the policyholders are complaining about being treated poorly. If they’re being boorish or chronically late or generally unkempt.
I can teach you the technical skills, I tell them. But I cannot fix your personality. (For that, we have to settle for learning strategies to compensate.)
There’s something else that I tell them about that. We treat the customer well—we do the right thing—because we are good people, I say. But if we can’t do that because, as it turns out, we are not good people, then we do the right thing because it will make our own lives better.
For example: The right thing to do is to return a phone call promptly. That’s treating a customer well. And I would think we could do that just because we’re good people. But even if we’re not—good people, I mean—our day will go better if we return that call. If we don’t? The customer is going to call back, and they’ll be a little less patient, maybe a little more angry than they would have been. If we keep on not returning that call, the customer is going to call our manager. And now the customer and the manager are a little less patient and a little more angry than they were before. And we’ve had to spend more time listening to voice messages we wouldn’t have had to get.
It’s good to do the right thing. I might not give two little hoots about what that policyholder wants (shame on me). But if I take care of him, right now, I’m going to have a much better day.
Economists have studied for quite some time the “core motive of human action.” To what degree, they wonder, do we act out of pure self-interest? Dacher Keltner suggests in Born to Be Good that “clearly we are wired to pursue self-interest, to compete, to be vigilant to the bad. Those tendencies make evolutionary sense, they are built into our genes and nervous systems.” But Keltner goes on to observe that developing schools of thought point to a pattern in our lives that is “punctuated by actions that harm our self-interest while enhancing the welfare of others: generosity toward co-workers, acts of charity to faraway children and the protection of other species, buying Girl Scout cookies at exorbitant prices.” (I must argue here, however, that never in the history of humankind has the purchase of Girl Scout cookies harmed anyone’s self-interest.)
Keltner’s research confirms that despite an increased focus in monetary gain as a primary motive for various undertakings in our lives, that we don’t always act in a manner consistent with our own self-interest.
Or, really, do we? Is it possible, in some way, that things we do for the good of another that would seem to be a detriment to our own self-interest are actually good for us after all? Keltner introduces the concept of a jen ratio, which is a mathematical equation that reflects the “balance of good and bad in your life.”
In the jen ratio’s denominator? “Recent actions in which someone has brought the bad in others to completion.” That can be the sales clerk being rude, the boss telling you you’re fired, the policyholder yelling at you on the phone.
But the numerator (that’s the top number in the fraction) is a tally of “the actions that bring the good in others to completion.” The man who generously tips the server at the restaurant, the stranger who picks up the book a woman dropped on the sidewalk and slips it back into her hands, the child who picks flowers from the garden for her mother.
Think about the kind of day a person could have when the good brought to completion outweighs the bad. When the jen ratio looks like 5:3 in favor of the things that make us more human. “As the value of your jen ratio rises,” Keltner says, “so too does the humanity of your world.”
Claims work can sometimes feel devoid of humanity. And folks who are contending with blown-off roofs or wet walls and carpets often have difficulty finding the human side of their encounters with their claim adjuster. In the next class I teach, along with the formulas for the area of a trapezoid, I’m going to be talking to my students about their jen ratios and how they might enhance the “millisecond manifestations of human goodness.”
We’re discussing Born To Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life in our book club this month. Are you reading along? What do you think of the jen ratio? Is it a valid reflection of our efforts to stay “human”? What good have you brought to completion in another today? (Is it time to work on your ratio?)
Share your thoughts in the comments, and join us again next week as we continue our conversation.
Our reading schedule:
January 10: Chapters 1-4: Jen Science, Darwin’s Joys, Rational Irrationality & Survival of the Kindest
January 17: Chapters 5-8: Embarrassment, Smile, Laughter, Tease
January 24: Chapters 9-12: Touch, Love, Compassion, Awe
Buy Born to Be Good
Photo by Angelo Amboldi, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by LW Lindquist.
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L.L. Barkat says
This was delightfully funny. Thanks for increasing my jen ratio today. 😉
Regarding that, it may have been my favorite part of the book. I especially loved the additional information (not mentioned here) about how high-trust societies see an increase in economic well-being. Makes sense. We trust each other, and transactions are smoothed, exchanges encouraged. We don’t trust each other, and everything gets stuck or squirreled away.
Anyway, again, thanks for being a source of jen here. (And, go you, on getting on TV 😉 )
Will Willingham says
Trust is such a big part of any kind of positive interaction we can hope to have.
I’m so intrigued by the way his research suggests it is really those milliseconds — it doesn’t take grand projects of goodness to improve on a person’s Jen ratio. It’s little, momentary touches. A literal touch on the shoulder, a smile, a small kindness.
I enjoyed your post too, LW. (Good call on the Girl Scout cookies.)
The first chapter of the book was a good reminder to me of how impactful little kind actions and choices are. I am trying to mindful of that throughout my day.
L.L., that part about trust and wealth was interesting.
Will Willingham says
Always, Girl Scout cookies. 🙂
I think I meant my comment above about the milliseconds for you. 🙂
Thanks for that. 😉
In the midst of dreary times (or just after reading the news), choosing to sprinkle kindness into the details of the day brings me a little joy and hope. It feels like there is still something I can do to help, however small of an impact it might be.
Laura Brown says
I am reading along. Coming late to this discussion. Possibly I’m getting hung up on a phrase, or overthinking it, but I’m not sure I can know whether and when I am bringing the good in another to completion. Does it happen at that moment? Later in the day? Days, weeks, years later? All of the above?
Your examples help, though.
I used to keep a nightly gratitude journal, and have tried other accounting-of-the-day methods, but nothing else has stuck yet. Maybe I should try this. I wonder, on days when I don’t actually see another human, does it = 0/0?
In any case, I enjoy this questioning of self-interest and the jen ratio’s possibilities for mutual rather than conflicting self-interest.
Bethany R. says
Great questions, Laura. I’m interested in what others think.
My sense is that you can bring different levels of good to completion in others. This can be done in their physical presence or not, I think. We probably won’t know the long-term results of what we do today, so that is hard to measure. But there could be a spectrum of depths-of-good that might be easier to notice like for example, sending a thank you card to your aunt for sharing a recipe with you that you’ve enjoyed for years, sitting by someone new at work/school who looks like they’d like a little company, driving a friend with a broken right foot to work, returning a piece of mail to a neighbor’s mailbox that was accidentally delivered to you, replying to an email with information the person needs.
L.L. Barkat says
Love all these questions.
Practical example from my own life, from the snowy day earlier this week:
I was shoveling and felt like I didn’t want to be done being outside. So I shoveled my south-side neighbor’s walk. Then I still didn’t want to be done being outside. So I shoveled my north-side neighbor’s walk.
I am pretty sure they do not know who did this, or maybe even that it was done at all (perhaps chalking it up to “the other person in the house must have done it” or “wow, it didn’t snow much today after all).
But it changed my own Jen ratio. I felt happy after doing it. The world felt the tiniest bit brighter. And maybe it improved their Jen ratio, too. For that day. But maybe for the future as well, as they felt cared for instead of ignored in their own neighborhood.
And wouldn’t it be great if every day we each carried around this little hashtag in our minds:
And maybe did the simple math at the end of the day. 🙂
Laura Lynn Brown says
Possibly my favorite part of this is “didn’t want to be done being outside.” Which might also contribute to a day’s brightness.