Reinforcement in action and good public policies

Earlier this week, we wrote about behavioral principles including positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and punishment. Today, we bring you two examples of folks putting those principles into action.

1) The first example comes from my own town of Bloomington, IN. When we first moved to Bloomington, we were surprised on garbage day when we saw that everyone’s trash had been picked up except ours! Not quite sure whether this was some sort of a hazing for the new folks (we do live in a college town, after all), we asked the neighbors what was going on. Their response, we didn’t use a trash sticker.

In Bloomington, each 35 gallon or 40 pound can, bag, or piece of trash must have

A sheet of trash stickers from the city of Bloomington, IN

a $2 trash sticker attached to it. The stickers (see right) can be purchased at any grocery or hardware store. As such, Bloomington residents are essentially punished for generating garbage.

Now, we’ve talked about some of the limitations of punishment and those limitations apply here as well. Some people will try to evade the punisher by dropping off their garbage in dumpsters around town. However, the trash stickers are only part of the story…

The city also picks up recycling “for free.” (note: there is obviously a cost for picking up recycling, but the resident does not endure the “pain of paying” with each bin put out to the curb). The beauty of the policies is realized when they are paired together. Garbage generation is punished at the same time that recycling is reinforced. Together, the two policies set up a strong incentive for individuals to “convert” as much waste as possible from trash that must be paid for at the curb to recycling that is picked up for free. Very clever (and effective) indeed (note: if you look carefully, these contigencies are actually stated on the stickers – another smart design!).

2) The second example comes from the city of Washington DC (although similar programs exist in California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island). In DC, the Unity Health Care Upper Cardozo Clinic distributes “fruit and vegetable prescriptions,” which provide $1 per family member per day to be spent at Farmers Markets ($112 per month for a family of four). This clearly helps reduce the cost of buying fresh and local produce, and is a good incentive in its own right. Folks who have studied the programs have reported that:

  • 66% of people ate more fruits and vegetables as a result of the program and 38% improved their body mass index
  • The program also brought new customers to farmers markets. More than half of families that received fruit-and-vegetable prescriptions had never, or rarely, been to a farmers market

So, think about how providing these vouchers or reinforcers contrasts with

Example of a farmers market voucher

punitive or punishing policies such as taxes or bans (on soda pop, etc.). It is not to say that those policies are not effective at reducing the consumption of whatever is taxed or prohibited, but when implemented alone, they do not necessarily result in folks engaging in alternative behaviors such as buying fresh, local produce.

And it doesn’t end there. There were other effects associated with providing incentives for folks to go to the market. From the Washington Post article: “Anecdotally, the program is inspiring families to embrace other aspects of a healthful lifestyle, Lambke says. One family got friends to join the program. Another tried out a new walking trail. ‘The best quote was a kid who came back to me and said that the thing he liked about the program was that his parents played with him more,’ Lambke says. ‘Oh, man. That was awesome.'”

But is it cost-effective? In Lambke’s opinion, “They come back once a month. It’s not a huge amount of money. In the broad spectrum, when we think about how much we spend on Lipitor every year, it is a cheap, cheap intervention. And arguably more effective.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself – have fun at your farmers markets this weekend folks!