The Role of Incentive Salience in Habit Formation

by Leslie John, Katherine L. Milkman, Francesca Gino, Bradford Tuckfield, and Luca Foschini
 
 

Executive Summary — Obesity is a serious problem in the United States. One established way to increase individuals’ exercise is to provide incentives, but merely offering them is not enough to change behavior. A field experiment with users of a pedometer-tracking app showed that marketing the incentives matters: Incentives that included a marketing component produced significantly more behavior change and more lasting exercise habits than incentives without significant marketing.

Author Abstract

Incentives can be powerful in motivating people to change their behavior, from working harder on tasks to engaging in healthier habits. Recent research has examined the residual effects of incentives: by altering behavior, incentives can cause participants to form habits that persist after the original behavior-altering incentives are removed. We conducted a field experiment with users of a pedometer-tracking app to examine whether the salience of incentives would affect their ability to produce habit formation in this context. We offered incentives to all participants and experimentally varied the salience of the incentives (i.e., whether participants received regular announcements about the incentives). Salient incentives produced significantly more behavior change and more lasting exercise habits than incentives presented without significant marketing. Through a difference-in-differences analysis comparing those in our experiment with a similar population, we show that the difference between offering no incentives at all and offering incentives that are not made salient is actually undetectable, whereas the difference between offering salient incentives and incentives that receive minimal marketing is quite stark. We discuss implications for research on incentives, habit formation, and exercise.

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