Humans are complex and fascinating beings. And, they make decisions based on many factors – including things that aren’t rational. That’s what makes it so challenging to engage people in wellness programs and activities. Most of us want to be healthier and we certainly know why it’s important. So, why aren’t more of us living healthier lives?

Some of the answers lie in the science of “behavioral economics.”

Historically, benefits and wellness programs have been designed around the idea that people are sensible and will act in ways that maximize their own interests. Unfortunately, that’s not the reality. We are very much influenced by what is going on in our lives, what others are doing, and our emotions.

It’s enough to drive a benefits manager or broker crazy.

If your client’s wellness programs are not getting the traction they want, you may want to consider these behavioral tendencies that you may need to address in the design and implementation of your programs.

  1. We’re biased towards the status quo. It’s hard to break bad habits and overcome inertia. That makes the default (do nothing) option an attractive option for some.
  2. We’re influenced by others. We live in a monkey see, monkey do world. People often learn by observing others and copying their behavior. It helps us feel connected. Not convinced? Look at how quickly dress designers copied the dress Kate Middleton wore to her marriage of Prince William.
  3.  We want to avoid loss.  For many, losing hurts worse than winning feels good.
  4. We like immediate gratification. Many of us are willing to accept a smaller reward today versus a larger reward later.  For example, “I know I should substitute that side of fries for a salad, but…”
  5. We’re overwhelmed by too many choices. If it’s too hard to decide between the options, we won’t make any decision at all.
  6. We use mental short cuts. We often put more weight on recent events and too little on those in the past. And, we are strongly influenced by how the problem/information is presented to us.
  7. We need it to relate to us. We need to feel involved and part of the solution. Just having the information is not enough. We need the answer to the question: Why should I care about this?

If you’re not seeing the results you had hoped for in the wellness program (or any other benefit plan, for that matter), you may want to analyze your population. Chances are the workforce is influenced by some or all of these attitudes. By determining which behavioral tendencies apply to your employees, you can redirect your efforts in ways that will improve your chances for long-term success.
Box-Farnen is a communications consultant in Aon Hewitt’s Baltimore office. She can be reached at


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