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Monday, July 21, 2014

Eat better and get a few bucks – Harvard Pilgrim tries a different shopping rewards cards

David Brooks

Economists will tell you that human beings only respond to incentives. Getting healthy would seem to be a pretty good incentive, but getting money might be a better one.

That’s the idea behind EatRight Rewards, a “rewards card” that pays up to $20 a month not to spur you to shop at a particular joint but to buy veggies instead of TV dinners at the grocery store. ...

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Economists will tell you that human beings only respond to incentives. Getting healthy would seem to be a pretty good incentive, but getting money might be a better one.

That’s the idea behind EatRight Rewards, a “rewards card” that pays up to $20 a month not to spur you to shop at a particular joint but to buy veggies instead of TV dinners at the grocery store.

“It’s so much easier to buy a frozen dinner or take-out food, where you have no idea what you are eating,” said Diana Seutu, manager of small group sales at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, which is the first health insurer in the country to offer the program. “The idea is to make people aware of what they are eating.”

Seutu said she already was a pretty healthy food buyer because her Romanian heritage taught her to shop frequently for fresh food – “we go shopping to the market every day,” she said – but the card has a spillover effect.

“I told my sister – when you use my card and want to buy soda, don’t use my card!” she laughed. Fizzy sugar water would lower her monthly score and possibly block the rewards.

“My sister is drinking more tea and water now,” she added.

The difficulty with eating healthy food is that the payoff is delayed – you won’t fall over dead from a heart attack in 15 years – but the sacrifice is immediate: Your coworker gets a doughnut but you don’t.

Overcoming that imbalance is hard. The approach by EatRight Rewards could be considered part of the so-called “nudge” movement, although monetary payment is a pretty unsubtle nudge.

The idea behind nudging is to create an incentive for people to change habits, rather than forcing them to change through mandates or restrictions.

As with many fields that come to sudden public attention, it hasn’t lived up to initial hype.

But it’s still a promising area of psychology and public policy. The British government even established a Cabinet-level “behavioral insight team,” commonly called the “nudge unit,” to use it in public policy.

A classic nudge is changing company retirement program contributions from opt-in to opt-out. This allows employees to keep control over whether to put money in the retirement kitty, but it means that despite lethargy and inaction (my default mode) you still save some money for retirement.

This change has been shown to make a huge increase in retirement savings – a good thing in an aging society – without getting in the way of personal freedom.

“Traffic calming” design, such as making roads slightly curvy and narrower so we almost unconsciously slow down while driving, is another example.

It’s cheaper and usually more effective than draconian speed limits and extra cop patrols.

In fact, all of advertising is a nudge, implanting various psychological triggers that make it more likely we will alter our behavior. Tony the Tiger has been nudging me to eat sugar-coated crud my whole life.

EatRight Rewards is run by NutriSavings of Newton, Mass., which was created when Edenred, a major company in employee benefits, and SavingStar, a national digital grocery savings service, decided to mash up their businesses in an interesting way.

It operates pretty much like any store rewards card, except it only favors healthy items, giving a nutritional scoring method that assigns “healthiness values” to more than 100,000 foods, taking more than 30 “nutrient factors” into account.

Participating supermarkets in our areas include Shaw’s, Star Market, and Hannaford.

To be eligible for the $20 reward – which can go into checking or PayPal accounts – employees register their store loyalty cards, make at least one shopping trip a month and have an average monthly shopping basket score of 60 or above.

It also provides meal ideas, grocery lists and suggestions for healthier options, cooking tips, recipes and video demonstrations.

It also has some games and quizzes to spur people on, since “gamification” is almost as trendy as “nudging.” After a pilot program, Harvard Pilgrim says more than a third of its employees are participating, covering more than 4,000 shopping trips of which two-thirds had scores topping 60. Not bad.

I wonder if they could made a ReadWrite Rewards card that pays you when you buy newspapers instead of scrolling through website aggregators?

GraniteGeek appears Mondays in The Telegraph. David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@granitegeek).