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Research into decision making and the impact of incentives

06 April 2022


Research led by a Teesside University academic could help to shape the way in which incentives are used to create behavioural change.

Professor The Anh Han
Professor The Anh Han

The Anh Han, Professor in Computer Science in the University’s School of Computing, Engineering & Digital Technologies, has been investigating the links between use of incentives to encourage changes in behaviour and how this could be used in social and economic interactions.

He said: “Empirical evidence suggests that arranging a prior commitment, before an interaction takes place, can enhance the chance of reaching co-operation.

“Commitments, such as contracts and agreements, are fundamental components of social and economic interactions to ensure a mutually beneficial outcome for the parties involved. Examples can include everything from marriage to healthcare treatments, energy reduction commitment and international agreements.”

Professor Han added: “There is a significant lack of systematic and rigorous understanding of the effects of different strategies of incentivisation to ensure high levels of participation in and compliance with prior commitments in real-world domains.

“The findings from this work can strongly shape the practice of using incentives for behavioural change, not only in the technical domains such as distributed AI systems, but also in the wider context of social and economic interactions, which could range from healthcare treatment programmes to energy reduction and climate change agreements.”

The findings from this work can strongly shape the practice of using incentives for behavioural change

Professor The Anh Han

Professor Han said the research is now informing an ongoing National Institute for Health Research funded project at the University, which is examining incentives for commitment and compliance to encourage pregnant women to stop smoking.

He said: “Through this project, it became apparent that there is a crucial demand on the part of applied health researchers for fundamental insights of the kind that this project brings.

“Using a mathematical model of human interactions, a theory was developed to explain how arranging a mutual agreement before a business takes place can help to ensure that the parties involved will behave co-operatively; and more importantly, identify what incentive mechanism, such as positive and negative ones, is best at ensuring behavioural compliance.

“A key finding shows that rewarding compliant behaviour strongly promotes co-operation, rather than punishment of non-compliant behaviour. Moreover, using part of the incentive budget to encourage initial participation towards the commitment, would enable higher levels of co-operation.”

The research has been published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface

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