blog Self-regulation techniques help people save for health - Joep Lange Institute

Self-regulation techniques help people save for health

“I want to drink more water”. “I want to do more exercise” “I want to eat less.” We all have our good intentions, but making them reality is a challenge on its own. “People often fail to act on important goals unless they use implementation strategies, such as planning or reminders, to keep the goals on top of their mind”, says Ting Jiang from the Center for Advanced Hindsight (CAH).

As much as we want to see changes in our lives, we often do not get to implement them. Behavioral economists call this the intention-behavior gap. In our previous blog we gave some examples of human biases and constraints that keep us away from implementing our intentions. In this blog we want to focus on how self-regulation techniques may help us act more in line with our longer-term goals.

The Center for Advanced Hindsight (CAH) has developed a card game that helps people better understand human behavior. In this series of articles, we will use this card game to explain the behavioral insights underlying the work that Dan Ariely and his team at the CAH are doing with the Joep Lange Institute in Kenya. His team is helping to make the M-TIBA health wallet more effective by consulting on the wallet’s design and implementation, such as providing nudges to users to save for healthcare regularly.

Designing the right self-regulation techniques

Failing to set aside funds for health shocks can be a matter of life and death for low-income populations. At the same time, it is a daunting task. Before one has a habit of saving, issues such as forgetfulness or lack of self-control to resist spending temptations may be in the way. On top of this, being poor often involves having a great deal of stressful issues to take care of and not having sufficient slack to embrace change. As a result, a behavioral challenge of M-TIBA is that users fail to deposit after signing up for the mobile health wallet, even though a majority surveyed strongly agree that saving for health is important to them. To increase M-TIBA users’ capacity to implement their intentions, the team at CAH introduced the concept of self-regulation. “People are better able to achieve goals when they commit not only to final goals, but also to the specific ways to achieve those goals.”

Fortunately, there are various behavioral science techniques for bridging the intention-behavior gap via self-regulation. To learn how powerful they can be, let’s look at this card, designed by CAH. Can you guess which intervention was most effective?


The card teaches us that tangible cues in the environment and designing the right ritual to reinforce the process (scratching the coin as a way to self-track) help keep saving on top of one’s mind. And against the intuitions of many, self-tracking was more effective than a monetary incentive or text message reminder. In fact, self-regulation techniques, such as self-tracking are around us more often. Think about contraceptive pills: the design of the strip makes it easy to self-track (days are clearly marked) and many women have thought about the right timing of taking them at the start (“directly after I brush my teeth” or “the moment I wake up”) and to keep the pills at a location where they can’t miss them (next to the toothbrush or the bedside table).


Testing various self-regulation techniques to save more for health on M-TIBA

For M-TIBA, CAH incorporated these insights and designed a special M-TIBA savings wall calendar. Many M-TIBA users already work with calendars at home and hence it seemed to be a great gadget to serve as the physical cue in their environment. Three implementation prompts were embedded on the calendar (see the Figure below for the “Implementation Intention” calendar:


Strategic planning: ‘“I will deposit at least ____/- per month by depositing in M-TIBA on the dates circled. And I will spend less on unnecessary expenses such as ___,____,____.”

Self-tracking: ‘I will deposit at least ___/- per month by depositing in M-TIBA on the dates circled. On these circled dates, I will tick if I have deposited the amount as planned or correct the amount if I deposited a different amount.”

Implementation intention: “I will deposit at least ____/- per month by depositing in M-TIBA on the dates circled. Typically, IF it is ___(time of the day), after ___(activities) at ___(location), THEN I will deposit in M-TIBA (using paybill no. 300066, account no. M-TIBA).”

Calendar example of the “implementation intention” condition

The various prompts were inserted into different calendars and field-tested via a randomized controlled trial in Kenya. The results showed that while none in the control condition (who received a calendar without implementation prompts) saved during the first three months after receiving the calendar, on average 10% in the goal-implementation nudge conditions (Strategic planning, Self-tracking, Implementation Intention) saved at least once. The key takeaway for M-TIBA is that just a branded giveaway as a visual reminder about the products does not necessarily increase uptakes. Instead, embedding behavioral tweaks into these giveaways can go a long way in promoting uptakes by bridging the users’ intention-behavior gap.

The team at CAH is now looking at adding more behavioral tweaks onto calendars, for instance by making use of the effects of goal gradient (motivation grows when you are closer to the goal), personalization and a different self-tracking method that may reinforce the process even more (e.g. shading the saved amounts instead of a tick). Stay tuned for more insights.


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