I was immediately intrigued by the letter from Princeton University.
It had all the hallmarks of officialdom -- embossed insignia, school-color embellishments on the envelope and letterhead, and an impressive return address: Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Although my two kids are -- of course -- geniuses, I didn't recall my soon-to-be kindergartener or my aspiring preschooler applying for early admission. Curious but dubious, I unfolded the missive and a dollar bill fluttered out.
Crisp it was not; it looked like Washington's head had hitched a ride in a graduate student's pocket for some time. I skimmed the letter. The closing paragraph read: "Enclosed is a small token of appreciation to thank you in advance for participation in the study." They're bribing me with a buck, I thought.
The survey -- designed to measure electorate participation and attitudes -- was randomly distributed to registered U.S. voters, and it assured me my responses would never be shared with any political organizations or the public. A quick internet search confirmed that the two researchers were legit. I read their bios and the reasons behind their research, the methods they used to gather potential respondents, and how to access the results of the survey once it was completed. But I couldn't stop thinking about that mangy dollar bill.
The letter and dollar sat on my desk for only a few days before I logged on to complete the survey. I was surprised by just how much obligation I felt towards the study's designers. They sent me money -- not enough to buy even a cup of coffee -- in the hopes that it would pull me towards the computer. It worked. Like a charm.
Norm Trusell and Paul Lavrakas of Nielsen Media Research published an article in Public Opinion Quarterly about the optimum token cash incentives to include in mailed surveys in order to coax a response. Turns out, many people really are more willing to return a survey if there is a dollar tucked inside.
It all comes down to social exchange theory. First developed by George Homans in the 1960s, this theory asserts that an individual's actions are motivated by the gains these actions are expected to bring. Using Homans' ideas, Don Dillman -- professor of sociology at Washington State University -- studied methods of direct mail surveys and concluded that three factors influence whether or not a survey will be returned: minimal cost of responding; a reward for responding; and established trust that the reward will be delivered. Enclosing the dollar up front assured me that I would get my "reward," and stirred within me an unmistakable feeling of obligation. Who knew a dollar still had so much value?
Although monetary incentives clearly work when it comes to getting folks to complete a political or entertainment survey, they do not always work when applied to some of society's thorniest problems, like obesity. Jacob Goldstein of NPR's Planet Money reported in 2010 that dieters who placed bets on their own weight loss with London's tony "bookie" company, William Hill, almost always lost. The dieters were given great odds and stood to win several multiples of what they bet, but it didn't matter; 80 percent lost their bets. Nicholas Burger of RAND -- who studied the bets at Hill -- explains the results this way: "When you look at a donut, it looks good right now." We undervalue the future benefits when facing the immediate delights -- which is why it is hard to change your behavior by simply changing your mind about something. What you need to alter, University of Southern California professor Wendy Wood argues, are the triggers of your habits.
Wood's research focuses on how unwanted habits start and how they are repeated within a "performance context." She explains, "Once habits are formed, perception of the context cue brings the response to mind." Because of these ever-present cues, it is extremely difficult to change habits by simply willing yourself to do so. "Instead, habits can be broken by controlling the cues that trigger performance," Wood asserts. Although many of our habits are initially formed through "goal pursuit" -- that is, we start running to lose weight or control our cholesterol -- the research indicates that once the habit is formed, the initial motivation only minimally supports the habit. Instead, we continue the habit because of the deeply embedded associations with -- and memories of -- particular cues.
In one of Wood's studies, she and several colleagues measured the amount of stale or fresh popcorn participants would eat while watching movie trailers in a cinema setting versus watching a video screen in a meeting room. Participants in the cinema ate significantly more popcorn -- even those who reported not being hungry and those who noticed that the stale popcorn was not tasty. The habit of eating popcorn in a darkened theater overrode their distaste for the snack; the memory associations were extremely strong triggers. It's not simply a matter of willpower; your mind must do battle with its own memory. Tricky stuff.
This spring I decided to change my habit of running with my ipod. Instead of dance grooves, I wanted to be more appreciative of Vermont's lovely sights and sounds. But it wasn't enough to desire to make that change. I needed to create new running routes -- ones that I did not associate with Lady Gaga or Beyoncé. It only took a few weeks to set my new habit; it's now been 5 months since I last ran with the dance divas.
I'm certain another survey will soon arrive. And I feel confident that, although the next one will probably not contain any money, I will still be inclined to complete it. A new positive association, having now been made in my memory, will continue to generate good feelings, and that measly dollar bill will have been money well spent and well received, indeed.