Tuesday, June 12, 2012

"Carrots" and "Sticks" in Behavior Alteration

OK, so Mayor Bloomberg and his activist Health Commissioner have decided to improve the health of New Yorkers by prohibiting certain establishments from selling sugar-containing soft drinks of a certain size.  Good luck!  Not only do such methods almost never work, this particular prohibition really infringes on individual rights.  Shouldn't a person be permitted to engage in behavior that, though potentially self-injurious, is not harmful to others?

Look at how well we all did with our drug and cigarette laws.  Tobacco smoking continues,  as does illegal drug use, and with all the years of knowledge of  its negative health effects, it remains the largest cause of potentially preventable disease in the United States.  Yes, the number of adult smokers in the U.S. has decreased since 2005;  from 20.9% all the way down to 19.3%! (CDC statistics)

Despite all the advertising about the horrors of cancer, heart disease, COPD, obesity, diabetes, drug addiction, and more, we go on with this behavior.  As long as these desirable agents exist, we will continue to use them.  If we make their possession, or sale illegal, we will find a way around the law and purchase them illegally.

Why do we do this  Why do we participate in what is known to be "bad for one's health?"  Easy - because we are human beings - and that is how human beings behave.  Humans take chances that they feel are reasonable - and hope they come out ahead!

But Dr. Balaji Prabhakar, a Stanford University professor of computer science thinks he may have found a better way to alter human behavior - a method that is distinctly human and very persuasive.  A "carrot" approach rather than a "stick" approach.  Humans are risk-takers and love to gamble.  Actions in the face of bad behavior are, in fact, forms of gambling.  When participating in these bad habits, we are gambling that they will not impact us adversely - and its a good bet, because despite these poor habits, most of us will not be affected in a major way for most of our lives, if not forever.  Dr. Prabhakar considers the "carrot" approach rather than the "stick" approach as far more advantageous in the transformation of behavior.

In today's Science Section, The New York Times reports how he has incentivized drivers ("carrots") to alter their commuting habits when going to work.  Participants are entered into a lottery with the chance to win extra pay when they shift their driving times to off-peak hours, thereby alleviating congestion.  The program has reportedly been very effective.  He has also proposed a program akin to frequent-flyer miles (or maybe even actual frequent-flyer miles) as a possible incentive.

Animal trainers know that using "carrots" rather than "sticks" is what works best.  "Sticks" are apparently not very effective in altering human behavior either, but give a man a "carrot" and you  actually may be able to change him.   

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