The prospect of losing out on a deal really can be an effective motivator when it comes to eating healthfully, a new study suggests.
Researchers from Tulane University and Duke University found that people were more apt to buy healthy foods at the grocery store if they risked losing a cash-back discount for purchasing such foods by not doing so.
For the study, more than 6,500 households in South Africa enrolled to be part of the Discovery Health Vitality Rewards program, which entailed receiving a cash-back discount for purchasing healthy foods at the grocery store. Some of the households were given the option to make a goal to increase the amount of healthy foods they bought each month by 5 percentage points (so if 25 percent of a household's grocery purchases was comprised of healthy foods, the goal would then make 30 percent of the purchases be of healthy foods).
Of these households given the option to make this goal, some were offered a further option of risking losing their healthy foods discount for the month if they didn't reach the goal.
After six months of this experiment, researchers found that the households who opted to risk losing their discount were the only ones who actually increased the amount of healthy food they purchased (they increased healthy food purchases by 3.5 percent, on average).
And interestingly enough, even if the households didn't meet the goal of increasing healthy food purchases by 5 percent, the ones who opted for the financial incentive still wanted to stay in the program.
"These were people that tried to use the financial penalty to improve their own behavior and failed to do so. But they did not blame anyone else, and they did not stop trying," study researcher Dan Ariely, of Duke University, said in a statement.
The findings "suggest that self-aware consumers will seize opportunities to create restrictive choice environments for themselves, even at some risk of financial loss," the researchers wrote in the Psychological Science study.