Why are we more likely to divorce than change banks?

People tend not to switch provider on the basis of 'better the devil you know'. Picture posed

Ailin Quinlan

The letterbox flaps and in drops your mobile phone bill. Although you're regularly bombarded by offers of a better deal from other providers, you don't even consider switching. You just pay the bill and forget about it until next month. Why?

"We tend to assume that human beings are very rational, but our ability to make the best decisions is very limited," observes Dr Yseult Freeney, lecturer in Organisational Psychology in Dublin City University.

"We tend to go for the quickest option than to think carefully through all possible scenarios before picking the best potential outcome.

"It's very much about speed and convenience," she explains, And instant gratification is a major motivator for the average consumer. If we can clearly see that we'll instantly save €400 by switching from an insurance policy costing €1800 to another costing €1400, we're far more likely to move. "If we have to wait a long time for a reward - like changing to a bank charging lower fees - then we are less likely to make a switch."

Another reason we don't switch is inertia - we're comfortably familiar with a particular service provider so we tend to stay with it.

"The downside of that is that, simply because we're familiar with one bank, we'll tend to stay with them - even if we're faced with evidence that another bank is making a better offer," says Freeney.

People also tend not to switch on the basis of 'better the devil you know', says Dr Keith Gaynor, senior clinical psychologist at St John of God Hospital, an expert in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

"You know what's wrong with your current provider or product and you've found a way to work around it, but you don't know what may be wrong with a new product or service."

And companies know about, and use, people's reliance on familiarity, says Dr Freeney.

"Banks know that if they get a student account, the student will probably not change their bank account in their life," she says, adding that research has shown that people are more likely to get divorced than change their bank account.

The relatively small size of the Irish market compared to other countries may be a disincentive to competition, she believes. "In the Irish market, there are fewer competitors than in the UK, where you will tend to find better offers because of more competition and people may be more used to switching." There's also an age factor to our reluctance to switch, says Dr Gaynor.

"Different people value different things. In terms of technology, younger people will have a very different reference point to older people.

"For younger people, the value in terms of phones is the newest thing on the market. However, for an older person who just wants their phone to have good reception and be easy to use, the old phone is what they will hang on to.

'Loss Aversion' is a major influencer in the way consumers behave, according to Dr Robert King of the School of Applied Psychology in UCC. This means, basically, that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush - people prefer to avoid the possibility of loss than potentially achieve gains.

And don't forget our love of habit - we don't bother to think about the pros and cons of something because our attitude is that if it isn't broken, don't fix it, says Dr Molly Byrne, senior lecturer in the School of Psychology at NUI Galway. "We aim to try and reduce the cognitive demands on ourselves so we don't engage cognitively unless we feel we really need to.

Dr Gaynor says companies also tend to make it as difficult as possible to change contracts. "Businesses make it quite emotionally stressful and time-consuming to change.

"They don't make it easy to leave them and you know that if you try to change a mortgage, it's a huge battle, time-consuming and stressful, and they make us jump through hoops, so the gain has to be very big."

How to face the fear and become a switcher

* Focus on the potential gains of switching and what you could do with the money you save, says Dr Keith Gaynor.

For example, if you save €100 on your heating, decide to put it towards the cost of your car tax, a much-needed new coat or even a romantic birthday meal with your spouse or partner.

* Take an uncompromising look at your true wants and needs, suggests Dr Robert King.

Consider this quote - and tweak your behaviour accordingly, he suggests: "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always had."

If you decide that you really do want to save money, focusing on this truth can help encourage you to change your ways and tackle your inertia.

* Prioritise what you want out of life, declares King who quotes the self-help guru Peter McWillliams:

"You can have anything you want in life but you can't have everything you want."

"If you find you are reluctant to change, ask yourself what your priorities truly are.

"Some people will drive a mile to save a cent on a litre of petrol.

"Others will not get around to switching a health insurance plan that could save them one hundred euro.

"Decide what your priorities are and if your priority is to save money - prioritise it!"