Tools talk to us

Sean Jordan

By Sean Jordan
Sean Jordan is Head of Emerging Client Management for the Workplace Solutions unit of MassMutual.
Posted on Jun 12, 2019

Tools are the epitome of function. So much so that their functions are often embedded in their names.

Pliers ply, wrenches wrench, screwdrivers drive screws. Whether we need an auto-mobile to extend our range or a micro-processor to enhance our brains, we know a tool by what we call it.

It’s the same with many of the new personal finance and benefits tools available through employers to help improve the financial wellness of their employees. The best tools help workers better organize and plan their financial lives based on their personal needs and budget. When most effective, these new tools literally map workers’ personal financial lives, helping guide them to a better place.

But experience with tools is often deeper than it first appears. Over the past decade, biologists and neuroscientists have shown that our relationship with tools is more of a two-way street. When we work with tools, tools also work with us. Tools change our perceptions, alter how we communicate, even further the development of our brains.

A decade ago, French scientists in Lyon ran an experiment with a tool called a grabber, a long-handled pincer used to pick debris off the ground. Scientists discovered that within 15 minutes of using the tool, subjects in the experiment perceived their arms to be slightly longer than before 1. Tools don’t just do. They talk, telling our bodies we are bigger, stronger, and faster than we thought.

Railroads made a huge impact on the lives of travelers and others. Railroads contributed to the American lexicon. We don’t just vent about our feelings, we “blow off steam.” When we’re headed in the right direction, we’re “on the right track.”

Perhaps most profoundly, the railroad changed the very nature of time. Before the railroad, time was measured by a clock in the town’s central square. To ensure trains ran on time, standardized time was put into practice across America in 1883, ensuring everyone ticked along by the same second hand.

Tools break patterns of behavior, even long-held patterns that our strongest resolutions prevented us from changing before. Our smart phones are like a life coach in our pockets. Decades of behavioral research have proven that the best way to create good habits isn’t with dramatic changes but a little bit at a time. B.J. Fogg, the director of Stanford’s Persuasive Tech Lab, describes this trick as “tiny habits.”2 If we want to eat healthier, he suggests, we should start by putting an apple on the counter every morning when we make coffee

Tools literally start conversations. The sense (and reality) of enhanced power is an emotional rush, creating the sense of new possibilities. In some ways, this psychological truth is embedded in the word itself. “Tool” comes from the Old English “tol” which derives from a Germanic root meaning “to prepare.” Tools don’t just do; they get us ready the do, even things we never managed to do before.

Retirement plan sponsors know the limits of conversation to change habitual behavior, especially long-term financial behavior. Even the most effective sponsors welcome support to help assist their employees into programs that will lead to improved financial wellness.

MassMutual and other providers are there for them. Retirement plans and employee benefits providers have created a new generation of tools that extend and enhance the power of the sponsor’s seasoned advice, from best-in-class proprietary tools that can provide any employee a simple holistic financial wellness score to HSA’s, student loan repayment programs and voluntary benefits.

These tools also talk in all the ways described above. They can help start a fresh conversation about reevaluating someone’s personal finances, reducing debt or starting an emergency savings fund. A well-designed financial wellness tool can open up new possibilities for saving for retirement. Nudge suitable workers toward taking steps to protect their family finances with life, disability or critical illness insurance, wherever they are on their own financial wellness journey.

The right tools may help change how someone interacts with the world and improve people’s quality of life. They can even can help start conversations about improving workers’ personal finances, help start them on the right path, and eventually guide them to a better place.



1 “Any time a tennis player picks up a racquet or a woodsman an axe,” reported the journal Nature, “that person's perceived personal space expands.” (Maher, Brendan, Nature, June 22, 2009)

2 Quartz, “A Stanford University psychologist’s elegant three-step method for creating new habits,” 2017.