How to Become Less Vulnerable

Do you have less injuries than average? Are you less likely of getting sick? Do you think only other couples get divorced? If you believe this, you are in good company. It is perfectly normal. However, you are most likely wrong. Research on people’s behavior shows that we share an illusion of invulnerability. In this blog I’ll present three ways to increase your actual invulnerability in health, happiness and work.

Golden Behaviors

– Nudges for a Healthy Lifestyle –

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I did a new investment in staying healthy and fit: I bought squash glasses. This time it was not because spending that money was beneficial to my health, as I described in an earlier blog when buying running shoes. It was because I believe that squash glasses reduce the chances of eye injury and thus enhances safety. I did not always held that belief. I previously believed that squash glasses were not necessary.

Why squash glasses are not necessary

Firstly, the chances for eye injury in a game of squash are quite low. How many squash players do you know that have been hit in their eye by a squash ball? I have met quite some squash players in my life and none ever had been hit by a squash ball. Yes, they had been hit on their leg, arm, or even one time on their cheek, but never in their eye. And I personally have never been hit even close to my face.

Secondly, getting hit by a squash ball usually happens to unexperienced players. Experienced players have learned to stop playing when the other player stands in line of the ball. In the first place because you can hurt the other player. But second, because the player that cannot continue the rally wins the rally (by a referee decision called a ‘stroke’). You do not even have to play the ball and still win the rally. That seems an easy way to receive points. So more experienced players are usually more safe players. In my team we are all experienced players. It has been a long time since anyone in my squash team has hit an opponent and personally this has been even longer.

Finally, as you probably know, your glasses always fog up when playing sports. It’s simple physics: when you’re sweating, water vaporizes from your face and settles on your glasses. I play better when I have clear vision and worse when I wear squash glasses. These glasses are a nuisance.

Illusion of invulnerability

You may have noticed the beliefs I previously had about wearing squash glasses in the (last sentences of the) previous three paragraphs. First, I personally have never been hit close or in my eye. Second, I am an experienced player and experienced players do not get hit. Finally, glasses are a nuisance and decrease my squash abilities. In other words, I am less likely to experience negative effects when playing squash than others: I seem to be less vulnerable than others. This bias is called the illusion of invulnerability.

Invulnerability of (not) wearing helmets

About 15 years ago, nobody wore a helmet when skiing. This was logical, I reasoned at the time: only a very limited number of accidents on the slopes are head injuries. However, nowadays, virtually everyone wears a helmet. This is logical, because it keeps your head really warm and provides safety as well. We have mostly overcome the illusion of invulnerability in winter sports.

Interestingly enough, helmets haven’t made their way into cycling in The Netherlands. Sure, groups of people riding racing bicycles on Sunday morning all wear professional gear including a bicycle helmet. But the rest of us never wear a helmet when cycling to school or work. No injury ever happens when cycling to school or work, right? Fifteen years ago, I never thought I would wear a ski helm either. I predict that in about 10 years from now we will all be wearing bicycle helmets in The Netherlands.

Invulnerability in personal health

There are countless examples of the illusion of invulnerability outside of sports. Rick Snyder, a distinguished professor of psychology at Kansas University, found that most people are convinced they will live longer than the average person. In his study people estimated they would live 9 years longer than average. Other examples include:

  • Most people believe they’re less likely than others to contract diseases.
  • People generally think they are less likely than others to conceive lung cancer or tooth decay.

Professor Neil D. Weinstein found that many people feel invulnerable in contracting lung cancer and influenza:

  • Twice as many people believe they are less likely to get lung cancer compared to more likely to get lung cancer.
  • Also three times as many people believe that they are less likely to conceive influenza than people who believe they are less likely to conceive influenza.

This illusion of invulnerability may also explain why more and more people are less strict about the Corona measures: they feel that the chances that they will be affected are much lower than they actually are.

Invulnerability in happiness

People also believe they are less likely to get into a divorce. The current divorce rate in The Netherlands is close to 40%. However, if you ask your married friends, the next divorce will always happen to other people. The researchers Baker and Emery found for example that couples who were just married could very accurately estimate the average divorce rate. However, they estimated the chances of their own marriage resulting in divorce at exactly zero percent. In other words, people in general are vulnerable to divorce, but personally they felt invulnerable to divorce.

Invulnerability at work

The illusion of invulnerability also extends to the work place. To what extent do you think it is likely that you will be fired? Generally, people believe they are 32% less likely to get fired from their jobs than other people. Also, people starting a job feel invulnerable. They estimate they will have higher salaries than they actually receive.

Invulnerability to advertising

But maybe, you are less vulnerable than most. After all, you are intelligent, educated and reading behavioral economics blogs. So, you know the tricks of influence experts and are therefore less susceptible. Are you influenced by advertising? Most people say they are hardly influenced by advertising. Almost everyone holds the belief that advertising affects others, but not themselves. However, what comes to mind when you hear the words “Golden Arches”, “Just do it”,  “The purple crocodile”, “Even Amersfoort bellen” (for the Dutch readers)?

A telling example may be the Victoria’s Secret Super Bowl commercial in 1999. They may well have spend a million dollars to produce the commercial and another million to screen it. If commercials have such limited effect on people, why did more than a million fans left their television sets to log onto the company’s web site?

How to become less vulnerable

After I realized that I am just as susceptible to the illusion of invulnerability as you are, I decided to buy squash glasses and – more importantly – wear them. I increased my invulnerability at squash by acknowledging that every squash player is vulnerable to squash balls when on the court.

You can also become less vulnerable in all areas of your life. Just remember:

  1. Critically evaluate your own behavior for a specific activity. I’ve critically evaluated how I could improve safety in my squash game. What specific behavior could you improve?
  2. Change behavior for one activity at a time. Be open to change your beliefs and behavior in various domains. Be open to alternative behaviors and take notice of that. Every now and then evaluate your own behavior compared to this divergent behavior.
  3. Talk to someone who can take the role of the devil’s advocate. I noticed that one team member had squash glasses and seriously listened to his beliefs and experiences with his glasses.

What is your excuse for not taking enough precautions when playing sports, traveling, at work…? I love to hear your creative excuses in the comments!

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Niels Vink (1975) is author of Golden Behaviors and behavioral designer. He uses insights from the behavioral sciences to explain why people often act against their own interests. As a behavioral expert, he explores how you can nudge your behavior for a healthy lifestyle. He has Master degrees in Social Psychology (Leiden University) and Industrial Design Engineering (Delft University of Technology) and holds a PhD in Consumer Behavior.

When you have been inspired to start and maintain your Golden Behaviors, reach out to me.

Source top image: Tom Eversley


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