Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Helping Others Change Their Behavior

A lot of what I blog about related to health economics is about people changing their own behaviors or the government/insurers/employers giving people incentives to change their behaviors.  In this morning's Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health newsfeed, there was a link to a New York Times blog piece about wanting to change others' behavior.  In particular, this entry was about changing parens' behavior when "parents" are in their 60's (or older) and are not taking good care of their health.

The blog piece was written almost exclusively from a psychological change point of view, although there were a few references to things that could be done inexpensively.  (For example, a trip to the park with grandchildren that would involve a lot of time walking.)

However, most of the steps could be interpreted hyst as easily in an economic context as in a psychological context.

People make decisions based on the information they have available.  One thing that people may need is more information.

There are varying ways of providing additional information.  Some have a high disutility.  This could be from the way in which the information is shared (a patronizing tone of voice) or the time cost of obtaining the information (here, read this book).  The less disutility from obtaining the information the better.

There are varying costs of engaging in healthier activity.  If a healthier diet could begin with fixing a meal for older parents or taking them out with the family (or just grandkids) for an activity they like anyway that happens to have a health benefit, then the marginal cost of engaging in the healthy behavior is diminished.

So, some simple economic principles--increase information in ways that do not create large disutilities and that involve minimal marginal costs in terms of time or money.  With any of these, people would be expected to make a shift toward the now less costly healthy behaviors.  The key question is how much the behaviors will change in response to the changes in incentives.  And for that, we would need empirical evidence (like elasticities of demand for healthier activities or meals when the time and monetary prices change) to supplement the economic theory.

The key here is, as I raised at the beginning, that instead of complete self-motivation or governmental inposition, we are now relying on private citizens who are willing to use some of their own resources to benefit others.  Thinking from a societal perspective, the final key would be to determine how to avoid having the government (if it also wanted to play a role) crowd out what individuals are willing to do for each other.  


  1. I wish there were more emphasis on a non patronising tone for public health. Do you know any studies regarding this problem?

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  12. I'd say what you can do is express your concerns as non-judgmentally as possible and then back off. They are adults, and will make their own decisions about how to eat, exercise, etc. I understand your concerns, especially since your parents could end up needing constant care, but you will not be able to change them any more than they were able to change you.

  13. This is great public service to help others to change their behavior, especially if the person is a patient. One should help the patient to fight against his disease instead of losing heart. Because the will power is the best cure for any disease.

  14. In short, all bloggers and any of us should provide information that is benefiting others. Let's educate them about the right thing to. Our words formed into ideas and concepts are very powerful and influential.

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