Why and how it works
To use incentives of different kinds is one of the most common ways of trying to change people’s behaviour. Research, however, shows that the effect to which incentives work vary highly depending on numerous factors such as the time, magnitude and the timing. For instance, it has been showed that people strongly try to avoid losses and that it can have a larger effect to emphasize the money people may lose from not taking action rather than focusing on the gains. The example with the Food Dudes programme illustrates how one can work with early rewards that are gradually phased out.
Economic incentives can be a very costly way of changing people’s behaviour, especially if they don’t end up giving a positive outcome in the long run. Furthermore when people are given an economic incentive to change behaviour the likelihood increase that they will demand similar incentives to do other changes in their lives.
Recommendations for implementation
Using incentives can be an efficient way to get people to try new habits that after some time can become inherently reward- ing to pursue. In April 2014 a new project called Testcyklisterna was introduced in the city of Gothenburg, Sweden in which 35 people were given a free bike suited for their individual needs. In return they promised to replace a car journey by biking at least three times a week during seven months. In the UK the government has introduced a “cycle to work” — scheme for employers, which offers people tax free bikes.
Example: Getting children to eat fruit and vegetables by using early rewards
The UK has one of the lowest fruit and vegetable intakes in Europe. In 1992 a new research unit, Bangor Food and Activity Research Unit (BFARU), was set up at the School of Psychology in Wales with the aim to research the psychological factors that influence children’s food choice and how to encourage them to eat more fruits and vegetables. Three key insights from the research was that children are motivated by praise, recognition and rewards, that positive role models have a powerful influence on children and that repeating trying new things can change learned conceptualisations about what food children like.
Based on the academic research a small-scale pilot was developed involving three groups of children between 2—6 years old in North Wales. The pilot included a DVD presenting children with role models enjoying a wide range of fruit and vegetables (food dudes) and small rewards, such as stickers and pencils who where given to children to encourage them to test new foods. Following the pilot BFARU developed a package for primary schools targeting children aged between 4 and 11 years as well as teachers, parents, carers and relatives. An important aspect to prevent dropout was to gradually phase out the early rewards and replace them with longer-lasting incentives of enjoying the taste of the foods. The programme was piloted in two primary schools during a two-year period started in 2005 and was then extended to 150 schools over a 3-year period.
The initial pilot showed that children’s consumption of targeted fruit rose from 4 per cent to 100 per cent and of targeted vegetables from 1 per cent to 83 per cent and that the effect still remained strong six months later. In 2007 the Irish government made the programme available to all primary schools in Ireland and in 2009 implementation started in England. In 2.5 years after the programme was introduced in Ireland an analysis showed that children’s fruit and vegetable consumption at home had increased by 24 per cent.