To quit smoking, turns out penalties work better than reward incentives

New research indicates that smokers are more likely to quit if they get penalized for smoking rather than receiving rewards.

For those who are trying to quit smoking cigarettes, a little external motivation is often necessary to actually follow through and not revert back to the old habit.

But which works better: Offering a reward for cessation or enforcing repercussions if they slip up?

According to a new study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the latter corresponds to our human nature generally, and the same is true when it comes to quitting smoking. The study states that “people are ‘loss averse’; they tend to dislike losses more than they like corresponding gains.”

The researchers assigned a group of CVS employees, their relatives and friends (more than 2,500 in total) to the two different smoking cessation programs. CVS helped conduct the study to use the findings to help their smoking employees nationwide attempt to quit.

When offered a choice, the majority of people chose a reward-based program, but less of them succeeded.

Incentives either way have proven to be more effective than nicotine replacement or therapy. But contrary to the positive reinforcement approach, the researchers found that requiring a $150 deposit that would be lost if the person failed to stay off cigarettes for six months were twice as likely to succeed. (They got their deposit back if they quit and an additional $650. The reward-based participants would recieve $800 if they quit with no penalty.)

The results of this research offer new insight into how large companies have started to run wellness programs to decrease healthcare costs and how those programs might need to adapt.

“These large employers are spending an average of $800 to $900 per employee per year, but in ways that are often blind to normal human psychology,” Dr. Scott Halpern told The New York Times. He’s the deputy director of the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and led the study. He also said that spending on wellness has doubled in five years.

Cass R. Sunstein, a Harvard law professor who helped develop influential ideas in the field of behavioral economics, said this about the findings: “They could be applied to many health issues, like alcoholism, or whenever people face serious self-control problems.”