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Monday, November 21, 2011

The power of reminders

I am fascinated by human behavior and how we make decisions. I am interested in studies that look at how humans make choices under different circumstances.  In behavioral economics, and economics in general, the view that humans are "rational" and "calculating" decision-makers is slowly being tossed out the window.  We are guided as much by emotion, irrationality, and poorly thought-out decision making as we are by logic and proper weighing of the costs and benefits of a particular decision.

As a result, there are researchers out there that are trying to figure out ways to gently "nudge" people towards making better decisions.  "Better" in this context would mean things such as healthier eating habits, conserving energy, reducing waste, exercising more, saving more money, and making better-informed investment decisions.  The list of "beneficial" behaviors is vast and that was just a small sample.  One of the many ways to nudge people towards these goals is through the use of reminders and feedback on their past behavior.  This is the focus of this post and I will be referencing a research journal article called "Nudging With Information: a Randomized Field Experiment on Reminders and Feedback" by Giacomo Calzolar and Mattia Nardott.  For additional reading on the topic of Nudging in general, I recommend reading a great book called "Nudge."  Refer here for more info:


The premise of this paper is whether people can  "be helped with sticking to their plans with a little help from information."  The authors test whether students can be motivated to attend the gym more without the use of monetary incentives and they show that "by means of a randomized field experiment, simple weekly reminders induce users of a gym to substantially increase their levels of physical exercise."  The students that received the "treatment" (weekly reminders about exercising) were more likely to attend the gym than the "control" group of students that did not receive such reminders.  The treatment students increased their gym attendance rate by up to 25%.  Before the treatment, both groups of students exhibited "very similar behaviors in terms of monthly attendance."  As soon as the reminders stopped being sent, both groups started to become similar again.  I won't bore or confuse people with the mathematical details but the authors ran a regression analysis and used statistical models and formulas to show that the results were statistically significant (i.e. legit) and not just random variations due to measurement error.

The main takeaway point here is that desirable behavior in people can be induced by using an inexpensive but effective method such as informative reminders.  We like to think that people know they should be going to the gym or doing other activities they want to be involved in and that sending reminders won't do anything since they are rational and are already aware of what they need to be doing.  But, as is usually the case, actual data, analysis, and observations from experiments show otherwise.

However, even though these results look promising and robust, we should be careful when assuming similar successes can be achieved in other contexts.  This study took place in a specific area, using a particular sub-set of individuals, and it only looked at gym membership rates at one gym.  As always, great care should be taken when extending the results to other situations, activities, and people.

But, it is certainly nice imagining the possibilities of such policies in contexts such as energy and water conservation.  For instance, what if water and power utility companies sent text and email reminders to their customers about turning off unused lights, appliances, and only watering their lawns at specific times?  We certainly know that we should be doing all of these things regardless of reminders.  But then again, the students in this particular study certainly knew they should be going to the gym and staying healthy as well, even without the aid of reminders.

Of course, we can always claim that such methods of affecting people's behavior is "manipulative" and can be used for questionable and controversial goals.  We don't need "big brother" pulling the strings from behind the scenes and affecting our behavior without our conscious knowledge.  This is true and I am sure corporations and large companies use such tactics in their advertising to manipulate customers and reap even more profits.  But, this certainly should not stop us from using such behavioral-nudging methods for beneficial goals such as promoting environmentally conscious behavior and getting people to exercise more.

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