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Helping a Friend Could Drive Healthier Habits

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Need help meeting your health goals? The best way to change your behaviors may be to tap into your human desire to reciprocate when a friend gives you something.

A study from the Center for Health Information and Decisions Systems in the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business is the first, say its authors, to examine how reciprocity could be used as a motivator to influence behaviors. Center co-directors Ritu Agarwal and Guodong “Gordon” Gao, and Che-Wei Liu at Indiana University Bloomington collaborated on the research, forthcoming in MIS Quarterly as “Reciprocity or Self-Interest? Leveraging Digital Social Connections for Healthy Behavior.”

The authors looked at how incentive programs can be used to promote healthy behaviors and what happens when reciprocity becomes part of the incentive.

The idea has its roots in the age-old practice of giving and receiving and reciprocating, say the researchers. It’s just what people do – return the favor when they get something. That’s the social norm, and it’s also a way many individuals show their gratitude. Sometimes people reciprocate because they know they’d feel guilty if they didn’t. Previous research has studied reciprocity in sales settings and other scenarios, but this paper is the first to look at how it can be used as a motivator for health. “Self-control is a problem that all humans struggle with,” says Agarwal, Distinguished University Professor and special advisor to the dean. “If we can use this innate tendency of humans to want to give back gifts as a way of driving them toward more healthy behaviors, maybe we can help people accomplish health goals.”

The researchers ran a rigorous, randomized field experiment with 1,700 pairs of participants in an online Twitter-like platform for runners. They devised a test to see what motivated inactive runners to hit the ground again to log eighteen miles in two weeks. They were astonished by the results.

In the experiment, one group was challenged to run the eighteen miles to earn a raffle ticket to win prizes from the online platform if they completed it. In another group, individuals received a raffle ticket from a friend on the platform for the chance to win prizes, then were given the opportunity to reciprocate and earn the same chance for that friend by running the eighteen miles. The group that had to run to earn prizes to pay back their friends was 32% more likely to actually complete the challenge than the participants who ran to earn prizes for themselves.

“Most academic studies examine reciprocity in a lab setting with very short timespans, like within a few hours. Ours is in a real-life setting, it goes beyond hours to two weeks, and it’s asking people to run eighteen miles, which is really non-trivial. And it works – marvelously well,” says Gao. “We are very impressed with the power of reciprocity.”

The results also reveal that the magnitude of the effect hinges on how well-acquainted the givers and receivers are. The researchers found the effect was strongest when the people knew each other moderately well but not too well.

“We find that reciprocity is strongest with friends who are somewhere in the middle,” Agarwal says. With people who are nearly strangers, you’re not concerned with maintaining a relationship – you’ll likely never talk to them again anyway, so why reciprocate? And with your closest friends, you know they won’t hold it against you if you don’t repay them.”

Edited by Maryssa Gordon, Senior Editor, Price of Business Digital Network

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