We had the immense pleasure of hosting the July 2016 Irrationally Healthy conference at our headquarters in San Francisco. During the course of two days, Dan Ariely and other leaders in the behavioral economics space shared ideas on how employers can have a positive impact on employee health and wellness. The conference was part of a larger initiative for Irrational Labs, which secured funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to research current business efforts to improve health and wellness, and to share what leaders can do to design more effective interventions.
In preparation for the conference, all attendees completed a survey that focused on their organizations’ current health and wellness strategies, what’s working and what isn’t, and—if given a magic wand—how they would use it to tackle the biggest challenges they face.
In collaboration with Irrational Labs, we’ll include their insights in the final report and webinar that will be released this fall, to help guide employers in using their roles to impact employee health.
After all, each of us spends about one-third of our adult lives at work. How employers design the workplace, the programs you offer, and how you communicate them will have tremendous influence over your employees’ overall health. As an employer, you can personally help make a positive difference in someone’s health and happiness.
And it doesn’t take a lot of money or effort to make a small, but significant change, in the right direction. Making a simple change within your onsite cafeteria, for example, can lead to healthier food choices. Simply pre-slicing fruit increased fruit purchases by 61%, explains Brian Wansick, author of “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.”
We recognize that not all problems can be solved with a bowl of fruit. However, by pulling the right levers in new ways, you may be surprised at the impact you can have.
At the heart of the conference was a challenge to employers to think differently about their business. When answering questions at the conference’s conclusion, Ariely’s response about technology’s role in impacting behavior contained critical advice for those with a needle to move.
In essence, he explained that data drives decisions (and why that’s both good and bad).
I know this and you know this. Often, to make a change to a program or to implement something, a standard part of the process is “show me the data.” And data is great! We looooove data. It has an important role to play in building a business case for change.
However, there is one limit to data that Ariely sees, and within this limit is a particularly shiny pearl of wisdom: Data can only show the optimal solution from what has been. It cannot open your mind to what can be. But experimentation can.
What we gain from experimenting
Experiments are powerful for several reasons. They challenge assumptions, uncover new information about how the world works, and can even help alleviate concern related to change.
What is there to experiment on? In a word, everything! The team at Irrational Labs has pulled together dozens of examples of experiments, their takeaways, and applications. But how do you connect these examples to what you can control in your role? Here are two places to start.
"Both experiment descriptions below were adapted from Irrationally Healthy conference materials created by Irrational Labs. Original experiment source is also noted."
The experiment: People were given a coffee mug and asked for the lowest price they would accept to sell it. Others were asked for the maximum price they would pay for that same mug. On average, sellers wanted almost $5 more than buyers were willing to pay, showing that people are more motivated by potential losses than potential gain. (Experiment source: Kahneman, Daniel, Jack L. Knetsch, and Richard H. Thanler, 1991)
Your turn: Stop sending the same old, boring enrollment materials. Try a “loss aversion” strategy for your 401(k) match message and see what happens. This means changing the story from “We match 6% of your salary,” to “You’re losing $X each year by not getting the full match.”
The experiment: Various subscription options to The Economist magazine were presented to two groups. One group was given the choice between a “$59 online subscription” and a “$125 print and online subscription.” The second group was given these options, plus a third one—a “$125 print-only subscription.” Adding this third option caused 52% more people to choose the print and online subscription. This is known as asymmetric dominance, or “the decoy effect,” and it essentially means that when options A and B are similar, but B is slightly worse, more people will choose option A. (Experiment source: Ariely, Dan 2008)
Your turn: There are so many levers to pull with plan design—number of options, pricing, incentive design, etc. But let’s focus on just one. If you want to drive enrollment in a particular medical plan, you could try deploying the “decoy effect,” by designing another medical plan very similar to it … but with a much higher premium. The plan you want your employees to enroll in will look like a bargain by comparison!
Make your company a lab
What’s better than applying insights from past studies to find solutions that could work for you? Designing your own! Do you have a tough problem to solve? We can connect you with trained researchers who will design experiments to test assumptions and uncover new insights. Contact us.
 Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, http://foodpsychology.cornell.edu/discoveries/slice-fruit