Paying your baby to eat properly is actually a legitimate way to get them to eat better in the long-term. Bribery might be worse, short-term, because the receiver–in this case your kid–is trained to get their motivation from money, not from the need to be healthy. But, says a newly-published study, eating fruits and vegetables regularly is still habit-forming, whether it’s done for money or for “better” reasons.
To test their theory, the researchers–George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University, Joseph Price of Brigham Young University, and Kevin Volpp of the University of Pennsylvania–bribed 8,000 kids at 40 elementary schools. These schools now run the new USDA-mandated lunch lines that force kids to take a serving of fruits or vegetables with their school lunch (and then promptly toss it straight in the trash), but eight of the schools were tested before these rules were implemented.
The kids were monitored to see if they actually ate the fruit or vegetables. Any child eating at least one serving got a reward in the form of a coin with a picture of a carrot and an apple on it. This coin was worth 25 cents when redeemed at a school store, carnival, or book fair. “We used redeemable tokens instead of cash in response to a concern expressed by some school principals that children might use the money to purchase candy or other junk food after school,” write the authors.
During the tests, kids who hadn’t eaten their fruit were reminded that they could get a token if they went back and finished it. Due to costs, the study didn’t run a control test in any school to establish a baseline for the figures, but the nature of the test, and the decision to stagger the start dates of the tests across the schools, mitigate other factors, say the authors. A simple before/after comparison was considered to be enough. Some of the trials lasted three weeks, the rest for five weeks.
The results show that the biggest spike in healthy eating came during the incentive period, when kids were actually being paid to eat better. Fruit and vegetable consumption doubled during the test period. But that’s no surprise. Even if you love and eat a ton of fruit, you’d probably eat more if paid to do so.
The interesting part came afterwards. While fruit and vegetable consumption dropped after the incentives stopped, they remained higher than before the experiment, suggesting that the bribed consumption had helped the kids to form better habits. Further, the kids who had been bribed for a full five weeks continued to eat their fruits and vegetables at a higher rate than those on the three-week trial. The follow-up tracked kids for two additional months after the initial bribery part of the trials.
The numbers are significant. Whereas roughly 40% of kids ate fruit and vegetables before the incentives, one month after the numbers were between 50-60%. After two months, the five-week kids were still at around 55%.
This long-term effect means that the initial cost of bribing kids actually works out to be cheaper, if you spread those costs out over time. And of course, this doesn’t just need to be done in school–you could pay off your kids at home, too. The more devious-minded parents among you may now be wondering how this could be applied to other desired behaviors in your kids. Perhaps their allowance could be entirely made up of micro-incentives, something which would surely not turn your children into crazed, micro-managing weirdoes when they grow up.