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Financial incentives motivate people to take up healthy habits, study shows


May 25, 2015

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A new study on the best way to motivate people to quit smoking revisited a perennial theme in behavioral science: the power of financial incentives.

Researchers enrolled 2,538 employees of CVS Caremark in one of four smoking cessation programs and compared success rates, concluding that promising a financial reward inspired people to give up the bad habit and that threatening a fine was even more effective in creating lasting change, NPR reported.

As Time noted in its coverage of the research, money is "one of the oldest and most reliable ways to motivate people." Many health improvement programs, from workplace initiatives to fitness apps, use financial incentives to drive progress.

In 2012, "59 percent of employers used monetary incentives to promote participation in wellness" programs, like plans promoting eating right or exercising more often, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

And many employers go beyond rewarding people for simply signing up. SHRM reported that 58 percent of the surveyed companies offered an additional incentive for completing a "lifestyle modification program" and around 25 percent rewarded employees for making progress toward their fitness goal.

Among the hundreds of smartphone apps that promise to promote healthy living, dozens play with the idea that money inspires behavior change.

Pact, for example, has users make a weekly bet around their wellness goals and then offers cash rewards for succeeding and levies a "lazy tax" when reality fails to meet expectations, as Washingtonian reported. Similarly, DietBet has users pay to join fitness challenges, and people who fall short of weight-loss goals forfeit their money to the "winners."

However, as researchers behind the new smoking study noted, not all programs involving money are created equal. People searching for the motivation to get fit need to consider what type of program will give them the most bang for their bucks.

"People are much more afraid of losing $5 than they are motivated to earn $5," said Dr. Scott Halpern, a professor of medicine, epidemiology, medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, to NPR. He said the strongest programs charge people for falling short.

Although many studies link financial incentives to fitness success, people can still make progress without putting their wallet on the line, as Peter Gollwitzer, a professor of psychology at New York University, told Deseret News National in January. He said the simple habit of planning ahead to resist temptations can do wonders for someone's waistline.

"You decide things like, 'Whenever I enter the cafeteria of my workplace, I will immediately go to the fruit bar,’ ” he said. "It works automatically in the sense that when you enter the cafeteria, the room itself acts as a stimulus and guides you toward the fruit. You don't have to think anymore."

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