Met Life Saved Money by Weeding Out Pessimists

In the mid-80s, Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. was losing a small fortune on hiring costs. Each year, the company hired 5,000 insurance agents from a pool of 60,000 applicants. The hiring cost for just one applicant totaled more than $30,000, which was typical of the industry.

Unfortunately, the company wasn’t getting much for its money. Half of its new hires would quit within the first year; most of those who remained became less productive. Within four years, 80% of the newly hired agents would leave the company. Every year Met Life was losing more than $75 million in hiring costs alone.

To stop the company from losing money, John Creedon, head of Met Life, worked with Dr. Martin Seligman, a leading researcher on motivation, to find a way to select more successful sales agents.

Seligman looked at the existing screening process, which relied heavily on the Career Profile test, an industry-standard created by the Life Insurance Management Research Association. The test was rigorous, only about 30% of applicants passed. It did not, however, measure optimism, and Seligman hypothesized that it is optimism that allows sales people to overcome constant rejection.

Seligman improved the screening process by using the SASQ test, a test that measures aptitude, motivation and optimism. Seligman found that only the most optimistic need apply for a job selling insurance.

Met Life then changed its hiring Practices to include screening candidates for optimism. In less than two years, the company had more success hiring agents, expanded its sales force to more than 12,000, and increased its market share of the personal insurance market by 50%. – H R Magazine, November 1997

“The pessimistic salespeople were twice as likely to quit as were the optimists.”New York Times, February 3, 1997

“How people respond to setbacks – optimistically or pessimistically – is a fairly accurate indicator of how well they will succeed in school, in sports and in certain kinds of work. People with an optimistic view of life tend to treat obstacles and setbacks as temporary and therefore surmountable. Pessimists take them personally; what others see as fleeting, localized impediments, they view as pervasive and permanent.”Time, October 2, 1985

“Seligman’s research shows the power of self-fulfilling prophecies. Those who believe they are masters of their fate are more likely to succeed than those who attribute events to forces beyond their control.”Success – September 1997

“Applicants who were optimists, but failed to meet MET LIFE’s other standard test criteria, were hired anyway. This group outsold its pessimistic counterparts by 21% its first year and by 57% the next.”Fortune, January 15, 1996

“Seligman has shown that a person’s optimistic or pessimistic way of explaining events foretells what may happen to him in the future.”Newsweek, October 17, 1988

“This test could save insurance companies millions of dollars in training costs alone.”Psychology Today, February 1987

“Analyzing campaign speeches for the prevalence of optimism, Seligman predicted the winners of the 1988 Presidential and Senate elections more accurately than veteran political forecasters.”From an Omni Interview with Dr. Martin Seligman, October 17, 1988

“A psychological analysis of Mozart’s correspondence shows that he was almost pathologically optimistic, with an exuberant self-confidence. Optimistic people who suffer set backs tend to attribute them to external causes that are temporary and can be changed. Writing in The Psychologist, Professor Andrew Steptoe of St George’s Hospital Medical School says that towards the end of Mozart’s short life when he suffered the deaths of four children, serious illness and repeated professional and financial disasters, his optimism actually rose.”By Jeremy Laurance in The Times