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Eight Bright New Ideas From Behavioral Economists That Could Help You Get Healthy.

Through a series of small grants, we’re is exploring the utility of applying behavioral economic principles to perplexing health and health care problems—everything from getting seniors to walk more to forgoing low-value health care.

At a recent meeting in Philadelphia we challenged grantees to compete in an Innovation Tournament. The goal was to identify testable ideas that leverage behavioral economic principles to help make people healthier by working with commercial entities. Participants were assigned to groups and made their best pitches to their colleagues. And of course we used a behavioral economics principle (financial incentives) to increase participation: Each member of the first, second and third place teams received Amazon gift cards.

Eight teams made the finals:

1.     Love Lock: This team addressed the issue of driving and texting by proposing an app that could be installed on your cell phone that would send reminders not to text while driving. This team would work with car insurance and mobile phone carrier companies and provide discounts to those who get it installed. The behavioral economics principles being tested are default choice and opt-out.

2.     McQuick & Fit: Too many people eat unhealthy food. This team’s idea was to have a rewards card that can only be used to purchase healthy food. With each purchase, the customer would earn points toward free, healthy foods. Online orders would be placed through a website that would feature salient labeling and allow for defaults to order healthy meals. The behavioral economics principles at play include pre-commitment, default choice, labeling, and incentives.

3.     Just Bring Me Water: The problem tackled by this team is “regrettable” calories—mindlessly consuming whatever is put in front of you, such as free bread at a restaurant, or soda on a plane. The innovation: when booking a table online or calling for a reservation, you could ask to “opt-out” of the complimentary bread or chips that are offered. This would reduce the consumption of regrettable calories.

4.     Lunch Club: This group looked at addressing gluttony through a partnership with a chain restaurant. When going out for a meal, portions are typically bigger and diners consume more. But what if you had the option of doggy-bagging one third of the meal for another meal—framed as “buy dinner and get lunch free”? And, if you took this option, you would get a scratch off as an enhanced incentive and immediate reward. The behavioral economic principles being tested here include loss aversion, active choice, and incentives.

5.     Snooze, But Don’t Lose: People don’t get enough good sleep, which leads to poor executive functioning and safety issues. To increase safety, productivity, and efficiency, this group proposed using a Fitbit to build in reminders to go to bed earlier and provide feedback on good sleep. The behavioral economic principles at play are pre-commitment and loss aversion.

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RWJF Call for Proposals: Pioneering Use of Behavioral Economics

We have announced our second Call for Proposals in the field of behavioral economics. We’re actively seeking ideas that will help us to better understand how to discourage the consumption of low-value health services — those that provide more harm than benefit or which provide only marginal health benefits. In addition to improving health outcomes, this knowledge could contribute to lowering health care costs for us all.

Behavioral economics is an area of study by which I’ve personally grown increasingly intrigued and in which the Foundation has recently begun to invest. We all know, for example, that we need to exercise, eat right and be actively engaged in our own health care. But we don’t always do what we know we should do; knowing the “right” decision to make does not guarantee that we make that decision. The goal of behavioral economics is to uncover insights that could enable people to make better — more “rational” — choices for their health.

It’s not a given that the behavioral economic-driven solutions that have been shown to, for example, increase 401k savings will prove to be true when applied to the challenges of health and health care. But it’s a risk we want to take because we sincerely believe — if it does — that it could lead to the profound social impact that the Pioneer Portfolio, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as a whole, is seeking.

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