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Life Health > Life Insurance

Short-Term Memory

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The last few weeks of August are usually pretty soporific. The grass becomes wispy and brown, dogs prefer to sit under benches rather than run with the enthusiasm of early summer, baseball becomes tedious if your team is not in first or second place, and most people would rather lay in the air conditioning than sit outside and scarf burgers at yet another barbecue. Most people won’t admit it, but by late August, people are sleepwalking through the rest of summer and ready for all the changes that come with fall.

The week of Aug. 22nd, however, sent us frantically trying to deal with two natural events, one that we knew was coming and one that quite literally shook us with disbelief. After both the 5.8 magnitude earthquake that rattled the East Coast on Aug. 23rd and Hurricane Irene, which made landfall in New York City early Sunday morning, Aug. 28th, I heard many people vow they would not be caught unprepared for events like these again. It will be interesting to see if that is true. I don’t think that it will be.

“I swear I am never going to drink again” is a phrase that I have heard more than a few times, muttered through dried lips while a hand goes over one’s head and eyes squint to hide from the morning sun. I believe that people never have the intent not to drink again or, even never to get drunk again. It is just something that they say that works towards the same goal that the Advil that they take does: to make them feel better.

A grim case in point: a good friend of mine in college was severely injured in a car accident after falling asleep at the wheel. The doctors told him that if he were wearing his seat belt, he would not have needed the reconstructive facial surgery that was required. After the accident, he swore that he was would always wear his seat belt “from now on.” That lasted a few months.

In and around my home town in New Jersey, I have heard many people say that they will now purchase both flood and life insurance after Hurricane Irene. The problem is, people have short memories and we assume that we are inherently luckier than we actually are.

One reason for this could be some of the statistics that we are bombarded with since we were children. [Fill in the blank] is about as likely as getting hit by lightning twice, or so we are told. We often rely on such improbability to justify not preparing for obvious risks. Buying life insurance for the next time you get struck by lightning, however, does you no good if the first time is fatal–and it usually is.

After Irene left much of New Jersey underwater, there appeared on the local news a woman from the town of Denville, who has lived along the Rockaway River for five years. She was complaining about the fact that she has been flooded twice there already and that the government should buy her out so that she could relocate to another part of town farther away from the river. I am willing to bet that she considered acquiring flood insurance after the first flood, just to make herself feel better, but time did what it does so well–it calloused over raw feelings and left her uttering the mantra, “What are the chances of this happening again?”Pretty good, it turns out.

During an informal poll that I conducted a couple months back, and wrote about in a column here, I asked a friend of mine why he has not yet purchased a life insurance policy even though he has a young family to provide for. He told me that he knew that he should have coverage and that he would get around to purchasing it. When he was prompted about how he knew that he should have one he replied, “T.V. commercials and common sense.”

This proves to me that insurers are doing their part. They have entered into the psyche of potential customers and shown to them how important the products that they are offering are. Personally, I don’t think insurers should spend all of their money on advertising that projects doom and gloom scenarios in order to hopefully scare someone into buying products in order to protect their families. (My editor in chief might disagree, though, if you read this issue’s Gamut column, on p.6.)

Scare tactics are especially pointless when the target audience still hasn’t purchased protection after their first close encounter with catastrophe, be it a natural disaster, personal brush with death, what have you. After that first close call, people will mechanically go through the motions and maybe even place a pamphlet next to the phone for a couple months to give them the illusion that they are doing something. That is, of course, until time chases the threat away.

Life insurers are doing their part to address a seriously underinsured public. Their products are in the minds of the intended consumer and people somewhere in their conscious know that getting coverage is the right thing to do. They just have to wake up and actually do it. How sad it is that it takes more than an earthquake or a hurricane to rouse people from such deep slumber.


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