Ideas for rewarding happiness related behaviours

Ideas for rewarding happiness related behaviours

From The Happiness Project

If you want to encourage people to do something — such as eat their vegetables — why is it a bad idea to give them a prize?

One of my most important happiness principles is to “Follow my interests.” Sometimes, I develop a passionate interest in some topic for no apparent reason. I used to try to restrain myself from going off on little research projects, so that I would stay more focused on work, but now I let myself go.

One issue that fascinates me is the rise in obesity in the U.S. Why is it happening? How do we change the trend? So I was very interested to see news reports that $1 billion of nutrition education didn”t seem to have any effect at all at how kids ate.

The theory was that if children understood the health benefits of eating properly, they”d make wiser choices. However, although they did learn nutrition facts, this knowledge didn”t change their eating habits.

In the descriptions of the various programs that appeared in The Week magazine’s “Nutrition Classes Don”t Work” (7/20/07, not available online), a few facts grabbed my attention that might help explain the failure of these programs.

“But in practice, kids given free fruit and veggies, a federal study found, were even more likely to turn to junk a year later.” –People generally believe that they get what they pay for, and therefore don”t value free stuff very much. (Is this the ultimate Giffen good?) Giving healthy food away may have sent the signal that no one would ever pay to eat it. This is ironic because in fact, you have to pay more to eat healthy than to eat junk.

“Other programs that offered prizes for eating broccoli, apples, and the like affected eating habits only temporarily.”

–Studies show that rewarding a behavior reduces people’s desire to do that behavior freely. Once the reward stops coming, they quit. For example, in one study, subjects were asked to work on an interesting puzzle. Half the subjects were promised money, the other half weren”t. At one point, the experimenter told the subject that there would be a break before the next phase, and left the subject alone. The subject could continue to work on the puzzle, read, or do nothing. Subjects who had been paid spent less time on the puzzle than those who hadn”t been paid. (I read about this in Kohn’s Punished by Rewards, a study of the problems of using reward to motivate people, recommended by a blog reader, thanks.)

What are the lessons to be gleaned from this? If you want to motivate folks to want to choose to do a certain thing enthusiastically (like eat vegetables or read books), don”t reward them for doing it or behave as though people can”t be expected to want to do it on their own.

Several years ago, we had brunch with a family we didn”t know well. After bagels, everyone got a bowl of strawberries, and the Big Girl said to me in a whiny voice, “I don”t want any strawberries!” and I answered, “Great, all the more for me, I”ll eat yours, too!” And I did.

The other mother looked a bit shocked. She told her daughter, “You can”t have a brownie unless you eat your strawberries.”

It was clear she thought I should have coaxed the Big Girl into eating the strawberries instead of eating them myself, and I”ve always felt a bit guilty about my reaction. But hey, looking at this material makes me think that I may have stumbled on just the right strategy for making her think that eating fruit is something that people want to do.