When trying to get someone to do something, such as losing weight or dropping an unhealthy habit, leaders have a choice in how forceful they want to be. This month, researchers at Harvard published a study on people’s responses to gentle approaches to encouraging healthy behavior vs. more coercive methods. They found that survey respondents were more supportive of gentler approaches, such as labeling menus with calorie counts or making nicotine patches and other quit-smoking aids easier to access, than of strategies that punished unhealthy behaviors, such as higher health insurance premiums for the overweight or outlawing smoking in homes and other private places.
In other words, they preferred policies that made it easier to adopt healthy habits but wanted to retain the final choice of whether to do so. In general, between 70% and 90% of survey respondents supported policies to make fruits and vegetables more affordable, and physical education and health classes to encourage exercise in public schools. But when the policies took on a more punitive tone, support went down to less than 40%.
An important caveat: The study addresses which approaches consumers prefer, but not necessarily which ones are most effective. It’s likely that whether a particular approach works or not varies between people and cultures, and takes into account a variety of other factors, such as their current health status, financial situation and other priorities, personal likes and dislikes, and intrinsic motivation to improve their health. For example, a person who plays with an intramural sports league in their free time would be more likely to join a company-based softball team than someone who has more fun reading, watching TV, or enjoying other less physical activities. Similarly, a person who has lost a relative or close friend to cancer caused by smoking cigarettes would have added motivation to quit smoking – or never pick up the habit – than someone who hasn’t experienced this loss.
Readers, how would you like to be steered toward healthier behaviors? Which approach do you think would make you adopt those behaviors and why?
For more on this topic, see:
- Sept. 20, 2012: Health Insurer Rewards Customers for Healthy Grocery Shopping
- April 9, 2012: TREND: Health Insurers Use Group Games to Encourage Wellness
- Oct. 31, 2011: Stronger Incentives: Charging Unhealthy Employees More for Premiums
- April 13, 2011: Medicaid to Add Incentives for Keeping Good Health