The case for bribing your kids

From The Washington Post:

Some kids just have a natural love for peas, beets or carrots — but not enough of them. This country has too many obstinate little people who don’t eat things that aren’t the color white. America’s health statistics attest to that: As of 2012, almost one-third of kids ages 2-19 in the United States were considered overweight or obese.

So how do you get kids to eat better, beyond blending cauliflower in the mashed potatoes or hiding mushrooms in the sloppy joes? There’s a fierce debate, both among parents and psychologists, over whether parents and educators should bribe kids to eat healthily. Recent research suggests that, while there can be some downsides to the strategy, it can also really work.

In a study published in the journal Health Economics in January, researchers carried out a field experiment to try to motivate 8,000 children in different schools to eat healthier. They found that giving the students a small incentive for eating healthy — in this case, a 25 cent token the kids could spend at the school store, carnival or book fair — doubled the fraction of kids eating at least one serving of fruits or vegetables.

The researchers also found that the effects lingered after the experiment ended, though they did subside somewhat. Two months after the end of the experiment, kids who had been rewarded for their health behavior for a period of five weeks were still eating 44 percent more fruit and vegetables than they had before the experiment begun.

The authors argue that the study provides evidence that short-run incentives can help form lasting behaviors and that longer periods of “interventions” are more effective at changing behavior than shorter ones.

There’s an obvious downside to these practices. Psychological studies have shown that, while external rewards like bribes are effective at getting people to adopt certain …

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