What makes (or forces/allows, depending on the situation) a person or a group of people to take an action? What impels (or propels/liberates, again depending on the situation) someone to act a certain way? It’s not always clear. I am fascinated by these questions because often the answer is the right set of incentives.
Two articles crossed my desk* and they show how complex incentives for people really are.
On the one hand, there is a really cool initiative happening over at my alma mater. A piece in the today’s New York Times highlights the work of Balaji Prabhakar, a professor in EE and CS. Essentially Prof. Prabhakar realized that rush hour on Stanford campus was bad. He also realized that “congestion pricing” — that is, charges for driving to peak places during peak hours — is unpopular with drivers, though is a common tactic to fight congestion. So rather than a disincentive from driving at busy times, he developed an incentive structure. You enter a lottery when you drive or park off-peak and can win up to $50. Simple.
It’s brilliant since it cuts down on wasted time, creates less rush hour pollution and is also flexible in how it scales. It’s a brilliant move and from an incentive standpoint, totally logical: people are willing to change their behavior in order to receive a benefit, in this case, money.
On the other hand, an even loftier goal is afoot to help improve obesity and public health in Philadelphia. Context: the US spends $147B treating obesity each year. That’s more than the GDP of New Zealand. Of America’s big cities, Philadelphia has the highest obesity rate and poorest population.
Unfortunately, access to healthy food in a neighborhood has no causal link to improved health outcomes wapo.st/JS4caz
— Christian L. Tom (@cltom) June 12, 2012
The new program to combat this is to turn the local corner grocery into a greengrocery. The city is working with 900+ stores to stock healthy items. To me, this sounds great since it stands to reason that greater access to healthy food (particularly in poorer neighborhoods where it’s not otherwise available) will increase selection of healthy food and increase healthy outcomes. Making it easier to buy healthy food should be a huge incentive to making one and one’s family healthier.
Except not. Emphasis mine:
“In the U.K., we’d started making policy about this before there was any empirical evidence,” says Neil Wrigley, a professor of geography at Southampton University in England, who works on urban planning research. “Time to time, this happens, where you get policies that outstrip the evidence. Then the evidence needs to catch up.”
Wrigley conducted one of the first studies of a food desert intervention, looking at what happened when a grocery store was brought into an underserved part of Leeds, an industrial city in northern England. Of shoppers surveyed, 45 percent switched to the new store. Their habits, however, barely changed: Consumption of fruits and vegetables increased by one-third of a cup per day — about six grapes or two broccoli florets.
“The results came out quite small, a very modest increase in consumption of nutritious foods,” Wrigley says. “It seemed an almost nonexistent improvement.”
Similar research in the United States shows much the same.
There are some good explanations for this. For example, access to food is not also only dependent on proximity to home but also about distance from public transit.
Still, when presented with two options — healthy food and not (selling apples is not mutually exclusive with selling candy) — people often choose the candy, simply because they want the candy.
Maybe the problem is this program in Philadelphia really only removes a barrier without providing a kick. And with the Stanford driving experiment, there is a good catalyst in cash rewards. Still, I look at these articles and I see two behaviors that are trying to be changed. It seems like both could be successful (and both are, after all, just starting so success is not predetermined). I read these excited about them both. And while initial trials at Stanford have gone well, the skepticism by experts regarding the Philadelphia work worries me since it’s rational, it’s too logical.
Note: Also check out the awesome Dan Pink TED talk from a few years ago about extrinsic and intrinsic motivators which I posted to this blog last year.