15 April 2013

Rx: Human nature

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Why doesn’t a woman who continues to have unwanted pregnancies avail herself of the free contraception at a nearby clinic? What keeps people from using free chlorine tablets to purify their drinking water? Behavioral economics has shown us that we don’t always act in our own best interests. This is as true of health decisions as it is of economic ones. An array of biases, limits on cognition, and motivations leads people all over the world to make suboptimal health choices.

The good news is that human nature can also be a source of solutions. Through her studies in Zambia exploring the reasons for unwanted pregnancies and the incentives that would motivate hairdressers to sell condoms to their clients, Nava Ashraf (an associate professor at the Harvard Business School) has found that designing effective health programs requires more than providing accessible, affordable care; it requires understanding what makes both end users and providers tick.

By understanding the cognitive processes underlying our choices and applying the tools of behavioral economics — such as commitment devices, material incentives, defaults, and tools that tap our desire to help others — it’s possible to design simple, inexpensive programs that encourage good health decisions and long-term behavior change.

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