Using Behavioral Economics to Improve Health

It’s strange but true. People act irrationally – even against their own best interests sometimes. And even when it comes to their health. Understanding this tendency, and taking steps to reduce its effects, can give healthcare organizations a leg-up when it’s time to help patients transition to new care situations or learn to manage their health in productive ways.

Think about it.

Most of us know what we should and shouldn’t do for our best health. But we often don’t do it. Why? One reason is we suffer from what psychologists call, “biases.” One of the most common is “confirmation bias.” That’s when we look for evidence to support whatever decision we already want to make. When someone defends their two-pack-a-day habit by saying, “My aunt smoked and she lived to 103,” that’s confirmation bias. “Recency bias,” which is assuming whatever has happened recently predicts what will happen next, is also common. Someone suffering from this bias might argue, “I’ve been feeling fine lately, so I can skip my check-up this year.”

We are also often deluded about the value of future rewards and the seriousness of future consequences. Future rewards can seem so far off as to be irrelevant. When that’s the case, changing health habits now can seem pointless. Similarly, the seriousness of future consequences can seem inconsequential. We have a hard time comprehending how eating a cheeseburger today could matter in the long run. When this attitude reigns, we minimize our efforts today and trivialize what may happen tomorrow. We think things like: It’ll never happen to me. I’ll worry about that when I’m older. I’ll change my ways when something bad happens.

Inertia also plays a role. Remember, people always have the option to just do nothing. Often that’s the easiest thing to do, actually. We procrastinate, and, eventually, forget there was ever a decision to be made. We say things like, “Now is not a good time for me to start exercising. It’s too cold outside. I’ll do it in the spring.”

But don’t despair. There are ways to steer people towards better decisions.

How we present options matters.

Simply telling a patient at discharge that they’ve automatically been enrolled in your diabetes management program instead of asking them if they want to participate has been shown to significantly improve results. It’s always more effective to make people “opt-out” of something than to ask them if they’d like to “opt-in.”

Offering a manageable number of choices is also an effective tactic for managing decisions. When a patient calls to cancel an appointment, don’t ask, “When do you want to reschedule?” That’s much too open-ended and they’re likely to freeze with decision anxiety. Instead, offer them two possible days and times and let them choose between them.

Clear, positive language makes a difference.

As do the words we use. Instead of telling people to exercise, invite them to be more active. Don’t preach about how much shorter their life may be if they don’t change their ways. Inspire them to make changes by getting them excited about how many years of good life they can add by doing so.

Personalization works.

How much attention a message is given depends on many things, including how relevant the message seems to the viewer. Make sure your messages are perceived as being directed at your target audience by using words and imagery that are aligned with their self-image. Resist the urge to use one-size-fits-all communications if you are trying to reach people who differ in age, gender, national origin or other dimensions.

Try goal substitution.

Often, we assume people will respond to one kind of logic only to find out they don’t. When this happens, it’s sometimes possible to achieve a desired result by substituting a goal that matters to an audience for one that doesn’t. For example, instead of, “Lose weight to feel better,” try, “Lose weight to look better.” You may find that this appeal to vanity is a more powerful motivator than the difficult-to-quantify opportunity to “feel better.”

Understanding that people are predictably irrational and applying these principles of behavioral economics to your communications can make a big difference for the health of your patients and your bottom line. Instead of telling people what to do, start giving them the opportunities to make better decisions.

Ready to put the power of behavioral economics to work for your next campaign or communication piece? Let our experts lend a hand. Call (305) 350-5700 or visit today.