Eight Innovative Ideas to Influence Health Behavior

Apr 4, 2012, 11:30 AM, Posted by

Lori Melichar Lori Melichar

The majority of my work in the Department of Research and Evaluation at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has been predicated on the long-held assumption that if you show people convincingly that doing one thing will create the outcome they desire, you can inspire behavior change. The problem is that when it comes to health, we consistently observe individuals acting in ways guaranteed to produce poor outcomes.

The observation of seemingly “irrational” behavior by economists, psychologists and others led to the development of the field of behavioral economics, which has, in recent years, produced insight to explain some of the perplexing health behaviors we observe in a way that the classical economic theories I learned in graduate school cannot. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation believes these emerging insights have breakthrough potential to help people make better choices for their health. That’s why I’m excited to announce that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Donaghue Foundation are now supporting a group of innovative researchers who are testing simple interventions that may have widespread impact on complex problems.

Last fall we asked behavioral economists, choice theorists, and others studying habit formation or physiological mechanisms to submit new ideas to help people make the “right” decisions for their health. After narrowing the field for our Applying Behavioral Economics to Perplexing Health and Health Care Challenges solicitation from an initial 330 responses to 25 finalists, we’ve selected the following eight grantees:

  • Anne Thorndike, Massachusetts General Hospital, Feedback, incentives and point-of-purchase interventions to engage employees in healthy eating behaviors
  • Elizabeth Merrick and Dominic Hodgkin, Brandeis University, Using novel patient financial incentives to improve uptake of routine mammography
  • Ellen Magenheim and David Huffman, Swarthmore College, Fighting viruses with viral marketing? Using online social endorsements to enhance incentives to sign up for flu vaccinations
  • Gretchen Chapman and Elliot Coups, Rutgers University and University of Medicine and Dentistry New Jersey, Walking with prospect theory
  • Judd Kessler, Eric Zwick and Dmitry Taubinsky, University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University, Using behavioral economics to promote medication adherence and habit formation
  • Justin Sydnor, Heather Royer and Mark Stehr, University of Wisconsin, University of California and Drexel University, Improving the structure of financial incentives for exercise: insights from behavioral economics
  • Karen Glanz and Jason Karlawish, University of Pennsylvania, Social goals and individual incentives to promote walking in older adults
  • Paul Resnick and Caroline Richardson, University of Michigan, Impacts of public announcements of goals and outcomes on goal completion

Typically, the phrase “pioneering ideas” brings to mind cutting edge technology, and the most advanced science. What’s pioneering about these new grantees is that they recognize how small, low-cost ideas that are easy to implement can create a big change.

We are looking forward to working with the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics at the Leonard Davis Institute and seeing how these ideas pan out over the next 18 months. We embrace the risk that some of these great ideas will fail to produce lasting change. Stay tuned, because next year we’ll convene each research team to share their findings—expected and unexpected—and to look for ways to spread the best ideas to those who most need a breakthrough solution.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.