Deciding to join Amway

The amygdala triggers fear in ambiguous situationsLocated deep down in the more primitive regions of our brain is a small almond shaped structure known as the amygdala. The amygdala is part of the limbic system and is deeply tied to our emotional responses to situations.

What does this have to do with Amway and the internet?

Well, in the last few years psychologists and economists have been undertaking some fascinating research into the way we humans respond to decision-making situations. One of the findings is that when we encounter an “ambiguous” situation, one in which we really feel we don’t have enough information to make a safe decision, the amygdala is activated. The result – we feel fear.

In simple terms, whenever we need to make a decision, we are consciously and uncosciously weighing up the risks versus the potential rewards. If we feel we don’t know enough – fear kicks in, and we will tend to choose the path of less risk, if we can.

When you look into the past this makes sense. Imagine one of your distant ancestors coming to a fork in the road, he’s on the way to a village to meet a lady who is to become his wife. Both paths point to his destination, a village some distance away. Imagine one sign said “Ada, 5 miles”. The other said “Ada, 8 miles”.

The decision seems simple – take the shorter route. But as he is about to set off, a stranger walks past and says “Oh, I wouldn’t go that way, I’ve heard there’s a man eating lion down that path!”

Suddenly there’s risk involved. Does he take the shorter route and save some time, but perhaps be eaten? Or should he be cautious and take the longer path? On the other hand, perhaps the lion isn’t hungry? Perhaps he’s not there at all and the stranger is lying to him for some reason? Maybe the lion left? Really, what are the chances of being eaten?

Let’s look at the possible consequences of the decision. One is that your ancestor takes the shorter path and reaches Ada with no problems. Alternatively he takes the longer path and he also reaches Ada with no problems. He lives happily ever after and has a big family, eventually leading to you. All he lost was a little time.

A third option is that he decides to take the shorter path, despite the risk. Unfortunately, there is a lion, and the lion is hungry. Your ancestor gets eaten. He doesn’t live happily ever after and he doesn’t have a big family, and indeed …. you’re not around to read this!

The risk of death far outweighs the reward of saving a few hours.

Now imagine this and similar decision making situations occuring thousands or tens of thousands of times with thousands or tends of thousands of people. If there was a gene for “caution”, then slowly but surely more and more people would have the gene that says “listen to the guy who says there is lions”. The gene that says “go for it!” would slowly become less and less common, being digested in the stomach of a contented lion.

Our human past has programmed most of us to be naturally cautious.

So what happens when someone shows us the Amway business? Well, some people still have the “go for it” gene, but most folk tend to be a little cautious. They don’t have much information. They’re not sure if the rewards are real, or what the risks truly are. It’s an ambiguous situation. The amygdala kicks in and they get that gnawing “buyer beware”, “if it looks too good to be true, it probably is” feeling.

This is the natural response of most people we show the Amway business too. But most people aren’t stupid, they don’t want to miss a good thing if it’s true, so they try to fill in the “information gap” and see if they can better estimate the rewards and the risk.

Jim Janz, Crown Ambassador and IBOAI PresidentIn the past they’d go through materials the IBO introduced them to. Perhaps like a young Jim Janz once did, they’d call the BBB and the Consumer Affairs Department and find little cause for concern. Perhaps, also like Jim Janz, they’d ask their family, who warned him it was a gamble. Perhaps, like Jim Janz did, they’d even track down Rich DeVos himself on the phone, to get some evidence the whole thing was actually real!

You’d get more information, trying to weigh up the risks vs the rewards and making as educated, informed a decision as you could. If you felt the rewards outweighed the risk, then you’d give it a shot. If you thought the risk outweighed the rewards, you’d obviously decide “thanks …. but no thanks”.

This is one reason why “the dream” became an important focus in the Amway world. Amway distributors would show their prospects books like “Profiles of Success” or videos with big cars and large houses. This would make the “reward” seem bigger and bigger, the risk more and more worth it. Then they’d take their prospects to some kind of meeting, where people just like them would get up at the end and tell their story – “we did it, so can you!”. The rewards seem big, and the risk, well, it’s not so big after all is it?

All through this decision making process, the prospect is getting influenced by another interesting psychological mechanism – confirmation bias. This is a tendency we all have, when looking at new information, to interpret it in a way such that it will tend to confirm our existing preconceptions. What’s more, confirmation bias also leads us to ignore new information that contradicts that preconception.

You mother told you this, and she was right – first impressions matter.

Today of course, prospects still start off with some first impression, developed by how an IBO approached them and explained the business, or how the first person they spoke to about it reacted. And many, perhaps most, still start off with the amygdala firing, triggering concern, even fear, trying to weigh up the risks and rewards.

Today, the prospect might still ask their friends and family for their opinions, they may even call the BBB or even ring Amway itself. But today, we have a much more readibly available source of information, and it’s where many people go first.

It’s the topic for an upcoming post: Amway and the Internet – A History, Part I

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