Can you pay people to develop good habits?

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Eric Barker  -  
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Looks like the answer might be yes:

Can incentives be effective when trying to encourage the development of good habits? We investigate the effect of paying people a non-trivial amount of money to attend an exercise facility a number of times during a one-month period. In two separate studies, we find that doing so leads to a large and significant increase in the average post-intervention attendance level relative to the control group. This result is entirely driven by the impact on people who did not previously attend the gym on a regular basis, as the average attendance rates for people who had already been using the gym regularly are either unchanged or diminished. In our second study, we also obtain biometric evidence that this intervention improves important health indicators such as weight, waist size, and pulse rate. Thus, even though personal incentives to exercise are already in place, it appears that providing financial incentive to attend the gym regularly for a month serves as a catalyst to get some people past the threshold of actually getting started with an exercise regimen. We argue that there is scope for financial intervention in habit formation, particularly in the area of health.

Source: “Incentives to Exercise” from Departmental Working Papers, Department of Economics, UCSB, UC Santa Barbara, 2008

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An easy way to lower your cholesterol that’s a lot of fun:

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Eric Barker  -  
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Kiss more:

Affection exchange theory and previous research suggest that affectionate behavior has stress-ameliorating effects. On this basis, we hypothesized that increasing affectionate behavior would effect improvements in physical and psychological conditions known to be exacerbated by stress. This study tested this proposition by examining the effects of increased romantic kissing on blood lipids, perceived stress, depression, and relationship satisfaction. Fifty-two healthy adults who were in marital or cohabiting romantic relationships provided self-report data for psychological outcomes and blood samples for hematological tests, and were then randomly assigned to experimental and control groups for a 6-week trial. Those in the experimental group were instructed to increase the frequency of romantic kissing in their relationships; those in the control group received no such instructions. After 6 weeks, psychological and hematological tests were repeated. Relative to the control group, the experimental group experienced improvements in perceived stress, relationship satisfaction, and total serum cholesterol.

Source: “Kissing in Marital and Cohabiting Relationships: Effects on Blood Lipids, Stress, and Relationship Satisfaction” from Western Journal of Communication

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Do blondes have more fun?

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We can’t be sure about fun, but female blondes do make more money:

This study contributes to the economics literature that links physical characteristics to labour market outcomes, by investigating the influence of hair colour on women’s own wages and also their spouse’s wages. Using U.S. panel data, we find that blonde women receive large wage premiums.

Source: “Physical appearance and wages: Do blondes have more fun” from Economics Letters

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Everybody hates commuting. Why do we do it?

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Eric Barker  -  
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Funny, I’d been planning to do a bit on commuting for a while.

Yesterday I saw Jonah Lehrer‘s excellent post on the subject and figured now might be a good time.

As he and David Brooks both note, commuting dramatically and negatively affects happiness. I agree.

Everyone hates commuting. Even sex offenders hate commuting.

Married women have a pretty dramatic relationship with commuting — it stops them from working:

These points were confirmed when Black and his coauthors examined Census data from 1950 through 2000 for white, married women in 50 U.S. metropolitan areas. The variation in employment rates held steady even when accounting for differing education levels and for women with and without children. For example, in Minneapolis, 79 percent of married women are employed, while only 49 percent are in New York. This disparity can be attributed to the fact that the labor supply of married women grew more rapidly over the last 60 years in Minneapolis than New York.

Black examined a variety of factors—local housing prices, child care costs, and local unemployment rates—but one stood out: commute times in metropolitan areas. Through an analysis of Census commuting time data and National Transportation statistics for the last three decades—the only period for which such information has been recorded—the authors found that on average women have a shorter trip to the office than men, and women with children commute even less. The cities with the longest commute times are New York; Washington, DC; and Chicago, and those with the shortest are Dayton, Oklahoma City, and Buffalo.

The authors predicted, and confirmed, that cities with longer commutes are associated with fewer married women who work—a link that is strongest for high school graduates. On average for this group, a one-minute increase in daily commute time appears to be correlated with 0.4 to 0.5 percent decrease in the labor force participation rate.

Source, Full paper here.

There are a number of theories on why this is the case for women who don’t have children, including the more even distribution of traditionally female jobs.

So with commuting being such an issue, why does anyone do it? Certainly there are the cognitive biases that Lehrer mentions. Another huge issue is money:

A search model of the labor market is augmented to include commuting time to work. The theory posits that wages are positively related to commute distance, by a factor itself depending negatively on the bargaining power of workers. Since not all combinations of distance and wages are accepted, there is non-random selection of accepted job offers. We build on these ingredients to explore in the data the relationship between wages and commute time. We find that neglecting to account for this selection will bias downward the wage impact of commuting, and marginally affect the coefficients on education, age and gender. The correlation between the residuals of the selectivity equation and the distance equation is -0.70, showing the large impact of commute time on job acceptance decisions. We also use the theory to calculate the bargaining power of workers which largely varies depending on demographic groups: it appears to be much larger for men than that for women and that the bargaining power of women with young children is essentially zero.

Source: “Commuting, Wages and Bargaining Power”

Let’s hope the quote from Repo Men isn’t true: “The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.”

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Drink too much? Smoke too much? Wanna clean up your act? Have a daughter, not a son.

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Little is known about why some human beings make risky life-choices. This paper provides evidence that people’s health decisions and addictive actions are influenced by the gender of their children. Having a daughter leads individuals — in micro data from Great Britain and the United States — to reduce their smoking, drinking, and drug-taking. The paper’s results are consistent with the hypothesis that human beings “self-medicate‟ when under stress.

Source: “The Effects of Daughters on Health Choices and Risk Behaviour” from Department of Economics and Related Studies, University of York

And the effect is significant:

…every additional daughter rather than son makes a person approximately 6% more likely to quit smoking and 7% less likely to have an alcohol or drug problem.

So why might people who have boys continue to drink and smoke? Because having young boys is more stressful and drinking/smoking/drugs help parents reduce stress:

Why would there be a link between people‟s health actions and the gender of their children? There is research evidence that bringing up sons is inherently more stressful than bringing up daughters; male children are more aggressive, noisier, more worrisome, and harder to placate… Human adults can if they wish choose to “self-medicate‟. They may do this, when under strain, by using substances such as tobacco and alcohol. A combination of these two assumptions leads to the prediction that the parents of boys will be observed to consume larger quantities of cigarettes and of alcoholic drinks than the parents of girls.

Next time I meet someone with five sons, drinks are on me.