There is nothing surprising about the fact that nobody likes to lose money. However, it becomes considerably more interesting when people have to chose between losing money and quitting smoking. Obviously, this is yet another thing that nobody likes, and moreover, one that few are able to accomplish, but which one is harder to live with?
University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine decided conduct an entire research project on the hypothesis that financial incentives or for that matter, disincentives, might constitute a successful tactic for quitting smoking.
The subjects of this research were the employees of CVS Caremark, a line of pharmacies with very strict smoking policies. They were more than happy to join forces with UPenn, as according to their studies, they are currently spending an additional $4000 to $6000 per smoking employee per year. Ironically, this constitutes a financial incentive that has lead CVS to the UPenn study.
With over 2,500 subjects in their study, UPenn has managed to organize the largest research to have ever been conducted on this widely discussed principle. And what they did was randomly assign the CVS employees to several quitting programs distributed in three categories.
They were allowed to make their own decision from there on, whether they wanted to join on or not. The common goal of all the programs was that participants stay cigarette-free for six months.
In the first category were the employees who were only offered the traditional methods used to help people quit smoking. Despite personalized counseling and free products like nicotine gum and patches, only a mere 6% managed to last up to six months.
The participants from the second category were offered different types of financial incentives with the condition that they reach the six-month goal. One group was offered $200 at the 14-day point, then another $200 at the 30-day point and another $400 at the end of the six months.
Obviously, the majority of the participants who were assigned to this category of programs accepted the challenge, 90% to be exact. The participants who got their $800 constituted between 9,4% and 16% of their category, in accordance to the type of financial incentive they were given.
Finally, the participants in the third category were asked to pay a $150 deposit at the beginning of the experiment and they were promised that they would be fully refunded at the end of the experiment and that they will also receive a $650 bonus along with the refund.
As expected, very few people accepted this challenge. Only 14% of the subjects who were assigned to this type of experiment accepted to go through with it. However, a whopping 52% ended up getting back their refunds, making this by far the most successful of the three categories.
Ultimately, it appears that people need both incentives and constraints in order to facilitate their quitting process. Furthermore, it seems that the combination of the two is even more successful than the incentive alone.
“Adding a bit of a stick was much better than a pure carrot,” jokingly concluded the lead author of the study Scott Halpern, deputy director of the UPenn Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics.
The study was published in The New England Journal of Medicine and was met with great interest by peers. The success that the method of offering people money to quit smoking came as no surprise to scientists. However, the fact that combining it with a disincentive has ultimately proved to be far more efficacious constituted a fresh approach on the matter, that will be further assessed in future research.
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