The state-of-the-art literature at the interface between experimental and behavioral economics and health economics is reviewed by identifying and discussing 10 areas of potential debate about behavioral experiments in health. By doing so, the different streams and areas of application of the growing field of behavioral experiments in health are reviewed, by discussing which significant questions remain to be discussed, and by highlighting the rationale and the scope for the further development of behavioral experiments in health in the years to come.
Behavioral Experiments in Health Economics
Matteo M. Galizzi and Daniel Wiesen
Economic Incentives, Risk Behaviors, and HIV
Sandra G. Sosa-Rubí and Omar Galárraga
Conditional economic incentives are a theoretically grounded approach for eliciting behavior change. The rationale stems from present-biased preferences, by which individuals attach greater value to benefits in the present and heavily discount long-term health. A growing literature documents the use of economic incentives in the HIV field. Small and frequent conditional economic incentives offered to vulnerable populations can contribute to behavior change. Economic incentives accompanied with other strategies can help overcome obstacles to access health services and in general seem to improve linkage to HIV care, prevention interventions, and adherence to HIV treatment. Future identification of promising combinations of intervention components, modalities, and strategies may yield maximum impact.
The Effect of Education on Health and Mortality: A Review of Experimental and Quasi-Experimental Evidence
Titus Galama, Adriana Lleras-Muney, and Hans van Kippersluis
Education is strongly associated with better health and longer lives. However, the extent to which education causes health and longevity is widely debated. We develop a human capital framework to structure the interpretation of the empirical evidence and review evidence on the causal effects of education on mortality and its two most common preventable causes: smoking and obesity. We focus attention on evidence from randomized controlled trials, twin studies, and quasi-experiments. There is no convincing evidence of an effect of education on obesity, and the effects on smoking are only apparent when schooling reforms affect individuals’ track or their peer group, but not when they simply increase the duration of schooling. An effect of education on mortality exists in some contexts but not in others and seems to depend on (i) gender, (ii) the labor market returns to education, (iii) the quality of education, and (iv) whether education affects the quality of individuals’ peers.
Health Insurance and the Demand for Healthcare
Health insurance increases the demand for healthcare. Since the RAND Health Insurance Experiment in the 1970s this has been demonstrated in many contexts and many countries. From an economic point of view this fact raises the concern that individuals demand too much healthcare if insured, which generates a welfare loss to society. This so-called moral hazard effect arises because individuals demand healthcare that has less value to them than it costs to provide it. For that reason, modern health insurance plans include demand side cost-sharing instruments like deductibles and copayments. There is a large and growing literature analyzing the effects of these cost-sharing instruments on healthcare demand. Three issues have recently received increasing attention. First, cost-sharing instruments such as yearly deductibles combined with stop losses create nonlinear price schedules and dynamic incentives. This generates the question of whether patients understand the incentives and what price individuals use to determine their healthcare demand. Second, it appears implausible that patients know the benefits of healthcare (which is crucial for the moral hazard argument). If patients systematically underestimated these benefits they would demand too little healthcare without health insurance. Providing health insurance and increasing healthcare demand in this case may increase social welfare. Finally, what is the role of healthcare providers? They have been completely absent in the majority of the literature analyzing the demand for healthcare, but there is striking evidence that the physicians often determine large parts of healthcare spending.
The Economics of Infectious Diseases
Economics can make immensely valuable contributions to our understanding of infectious disease transmission and the design of effective policy responses. The one unique characteristic of infectious diseases makes it also particularly complicated to analyze: the fact that it is transmitted from person to person. It explains why individuals’ behavior and externalities are a central topic for the economics of infectious diseases. Many public health interventions are built on the assumption that individuals are altruistic and consider the benefits and costs of their actions to others. This would imply that even infected individuals demand prevention, which stands in conflict with the economic theory of rational behavior. Empirical evidence is conflicting for infected individuals. For healthy individuals, evidence suggests that the demand for prevention is affected by real or perceived risk of infection. However, studies are plagued by underreporting of preventive behavior and non-random selection into testing. Some empirical studies have shown that the impact of prevention interventions could be far greater than one case prevented, resulting in significant externalities. Therefore, economic evaluations need to build on dynamic transmission models in order to correctly estimate these externalities. Future research needs are significant. Economic research needs to improve our understanding of the role of human behavior in disease transmission; support the better integration of economic and epidemiological modeling, evaluation of large-scale public health interventions with quasi-experimental methods, design of optimal subsidies for tackling the global threat of antimicrobial resistance, refocusing the research agenda toward underresearched diseases; and most importantly to assure that progress translates into saved lives on the ground by advising on effective health system strengthening.
Information, Risk Aversion, and Healthcare Economics
Hendrik Schmitz and Svenja Winkler
The terms information and risk aversion play central roles in healthcare economics. While risk aversion is among the main reasons for the existence of health insurance, information asymmetries between insured individual and insurance company potentially lead to moral hazard or adverse selection. This has implications for the optimal design of health insurance contracts, but whether there is indeed moral hazard or adverse selection is ultimately an empirical question. Recently, there was even a debate whether the opposite of adverse selection—advantageous selection—prevails. Private information on risk aversion might weigh out information asymmetries regarding risk type and lead to more insurance coverage of healthy individuals (instead of less insurance coverage in adverse selection). Information and risk preferences are important not only in health insurance but more generally in health economics. For instance, they affect health behavior and, consequently, health outcomes. The degree of risk aversion, the ability to perceive risks, and the availability of information about risks partly explain why some individuals engage in unhealthy behavior while others refrain from smoking, drinking, or the like. Information has several dimensions. Apart from information on one’s personal health status, risk preferences, or health risks, consumer information on provider quality or health insurance supply is central in the economics of healthcare. Even though healthcare systems are necessarily highly regulated throughout the world, all systems at least allow for some market elements. These typically include the possibility of consumer choice, for instance, regarding health insurance coverage or choice of medical provider. An important question is whether consumer choice elements work in the healthcare sector—that is, whether consumers actually make rational or optimal decisions—and whether more information can improve decision quality.
Behavioral Corporate Finance: The Life Cycle of a CEO Career
Marius Guenzel and Ulrike Malmendier
One of the fastest-growing areas of finance research is the study of managerial biases and their implications for firm outcomes. Since the mid-2000s, this strand of behavioral corporate finance has provided theoretical and empirical evidence on the influence of biases in the corporate realm, such as overconfidence, experience effects, and the sunk-cost fallacy. The field has been a leading force in dismantling the argument that traditional economic mechanisms—selection, learning, and market discipline—would suffice to uphold the rational-manager paradigm. Instead, the evidence reveals that behavioral forces exert a significant influence at every stage of a chief executive officer’s (CEO’s) career. First, at the appointment stage, selection does not impede the promotion of behavioral managers. Instead, competitive environments oftentimes promote their advancement, even under value-maximizing selection mechanisms. Second, while at the helm of the company, learning opportunities are limited, since many managerial decisions occur at low frequency, and their causal effects are clouded by self-attribution bias and difficult to disentangle from those of concurrent events. Third, at the dismissal stage, market discipline does not ensure the firing of biased decision-makers as board members themselves are subject to biases in their evaluation of CEOs. By documenting how biases affect even the most educated and influential decision-makers, such as CEOs, the field has generated important insights into the hard-wiring of biases. Biases do not simply stem from a lack of education, nor are they restricted to low-ability agents. Instead, biases are significant elements of human decision-making at the highest levels of organizations. An important question for future research is how to limit, in each CEO career phase, the adverse effects of managerial biases. Potential approaches include refining selection mechanisms, designing and implementing corporate repairs, and reshaping corporate governance to account not only for incentive misalignments, but also for biased decision-making.
The Economics of Smoking Prevention
Philip DeCicca, Donald S. Kenkel, Michael F. Lovenheim, and Erik Nesson
Smoking prevention has been a key component of health policy in developed nations for over half a century. Public policies to reduce the physical harm attributed to cigarette smoking, both externally and to the smoker, include cigarette taxation, smoking bans, and anti-smoking campaigns, among other publicly conceived strategies to reduce smoking initiation among the young and increase smoking cessation among current smokers. Despite the policy intensity of the past two decades, there remains debate regarding whether, and to what extent, the observed reductions in smoking are due to such policies. Indeed, while smoking rates in developed countries have fallen substantially over the past half century, it is difficult to separate secular trends toward greater investment in health from actual policy impacts. In other words, smoking rates might have declined in the absence of these anti-smoking policies, consistent with trends toward other healthy behaviors. These trends also may reflect longer-run responses to policies enacted many years ago, which also poses challenges for identification of causal policy effects. While smoking rates fell dramatically over this period, the gradient in smoking prevalence has become tilted toward lower socioeconomic status (SES) individuals. That is, cigarette smoking exhibited a relatively flat SES gradient 50 years ago, but today that gradient is much steeper: relatively less-educated and lower-income individuals are many times more likely to be cigarette smokers than their more highly educated and higher-income counterparts. Over time, consumers also have become less price-responsive, which has rendered cigarette taxation a less effective policy tool with which to reduce smoking. The emergence of tax avoidance strategies such as casual cigarette smuggling (e.g., cross-tax border purchasing) and purchasing from tax-free outlets (e.g., Native reservations in Canada and the United States) have likely contributed to reduced price sensitivity. Such behaviors have been of particular interest in the last decade as cigarette taxation has roughly doubled cigarette prices in many developed nations, creating often large incentives to avoid taxation for those who continue to smoke. Perhaps due to the perception that traditional policy has been ineffective, recent anti-smoking policy has focused more on the direct regulation of cigarettes and smoking behavior. The main non-price-based policy has been the rise of smoke-free air laws, which restrict smoking behavior in workplaces, restaurants, and bars. These regulations can reduce smoking prevalence and exposure to secondhand smoke among nonsmokers. However, they may also shift the location of smoking in ways that increase secondhand smoke exposure, particularly among children. Other non-tax regulations focus on the packaging (e.g., the movement towards plain packaging), advertising, and product attributes of cigarettes (e.g., nicotine content, cigarette flavor, etc.), and most are attempts to reduce smoking by making it less desirable to the actual or potential smoker. Perhaps not surprisingly, research in the economics of smoking prevention has followed these policy developments, though strong interest remains in both the evaluation of price- and non-price policies as well as any offsetting responses among smokers that may undermine the effectiveness of these regulations. While the past two decades have provided fertile ground for research in the economics of smoking, we expect this to continue, as governments search for more innovative and effective ways to reduce smoking.
Behavioral Development Economics
Karla Hoff and Allison Demeritt
Economics, like all behavioral sciences, incorporates premises about how people think. Behavioral economics emerged in reaction to the extreme assumption in neoclassical economics that agents have unbounded cognitive capacity and exogenous, fixed preferences. There have been two waves of behavioral economics, and both have enriched development economics. The first wave takes into account that cognitive capacity is bounded and that individuals in many situations act predictably irrationally: there are universal human biases. Behavioral development economics in this first wave has shown that low-cost interventions can be “small miracles” that increase productivity and well-being by making it easier for people to make the rational choice. The second wave of behavioral economics explicitly takes into account that humans are products of culture as well as nature. From their experience and exposure to communities, humans adopt beliefs that shape their perception, construals, and behavior. This second wave helps explain why long-run paths of economic development may diverge across countries with different histories. The second wave also suggests a new kind of intervention: Policies that give individuals new experiences or new role models may change their perceptions and preferences. New perceptions and preferences change behavior. This is a very different perspective than that of neoclassical economics, in which changing behavior requires ongoing interventions.
Social Interactions in Health Behaviors and Conditions
Ana Balsa and Carlos Díaz
Health behaviors are a major source of morbidity and mortality in the developed and much of the developing world. The social nature of many of these behaviors, such as eating or using alcohol, and the normative connotations that accompany others (i.e., sexual behavior, illegal drug use) make them quite susceptible to peer influence. This chapter assesses the role of social interactions in the determination of health behaviors. It highlights the methodological progress of the past two decades in addressing the multiple challenges inherent in the estimation of peer effects, and notes methodological issues that still need to be confronted. A comprehensive review of the economics empirical literature—mostly for developed countries—shows strong and robust peer effects across a wide set of health behaviors, including alcohol use, body weight, food intake, body fitness, teen pregnancy, and sexual behaviors. The evidence is mixed when assessing tobacco use, illicit drug use, and mental health. The article also explores the as yet incipient literature on the mechanisms behind peer influence and on new developments in the study of social networks that are shedding light on the dynamics of social influence. There is suggestive evidence that social norms and social conformism lie behind peer effects in substance use, obesity, and teen pregnancy, while social learning has been pointed out as a channel behind fertility decisions, mental health utilization, and uptake of medication. Future research needs to deepen the understanding of the mechanisms behind peer influence in health behaviors in order to design more targeted welfare-enhancing policies.
The Economics of Diet and Obesity: Public Policy
The rise in obesity and other food-related chronic diseases has prompted public-health officials of local communities, national governments, and international institutions to pay attention to the regulation of food supply and consumer behavior. A wide range of policy interventions has been proposed and tested since the early 21st century in various countries. The most prominent are food taxation, health education, nutritional labeling, behavioral interventions at point-of-decision, advertising, and regulations of food quality and trade. While the standard neoclassical approach to consumer rationality provides limited arguments in favor of public regulations, the recent development of behavioral economics research extends the scope of regulation to many marketing practices of the food industry. In addition, behavioral economics provides arguments in favor of taxation, easy-to-use front-of-pack labels, and the use of nudges for altering consumer choices. A selective but careful review of the empirical literature on taxation, labeling, and nudges suggests that a policy mixing these tools may produce some health benefits. More specifically, soft-drink taxation, front-of-pack labeling policies, regulations of marketing practices, and eating nudges based on affect or behavior manipulations are often effective methods for reducing unhealthy eating. The economic research faces important challenges. First, the lack of a proper control group and exogenous sources of variations in policy variables make evaluation very difficult. Identification is challenging as well, with data covering short time periods over which markets are observed around slowly moving equilibria. In addition, truly exogenous supply or demand shocks are rare events. Second, structural models of consumer choices cannot provide accurate assessment of the welfare benefits of public policies because they consider perfectly rational agents and often ignore the dynamic aspects of food decisions, especially consumer concerns over health. Being able to obtain better welfare evaluation of policies is a priority. Third, there is a lack of research on the food industry response to public policies. Some studies implement empirical industrial organization models to infer the industry strategic reactions from market data. A fruitful avenue is to extend this approach to analyze other key dimensions of industrial strategies, especially decisions regarding the nutritional quality of food. Finally, the implementation of nutritional policies yields systemic consequences that may be underestimated. They give rise to conflicts between public health and trade objectives and alter the business models of the food sector. This may greatly limit the external validity of ex-ante empirical approaches. Future works may benefit from household-, firm-, and product-level data collected in rapidly developing economies where food markets are characterized by rapid transitions, the supply is often more volatile, and exogenous shocks occur more frequently.
Choice Inconsistencies in the Demand for Private Health Insurance
In many countries of the world, consumers choose their health insurance coverage from a large menu of often complex options supplied by private insurance companies. Economic benefits of the wide choice of health insurance options depend on the extent to which the consumers are active, well informed, and sophisticated decision makers capable of choosing plans that are well-suited to their individual circumstances. There are many possible ways how consumers’ actual decision making in the health insurance domain can depart from the standard model of health insurance demand of a rational risk-averse consumer. For example, consumers can have inaccurate subjective beliefs about characteristics of alternative plans in their choice set or about the distribution of health expenditure risk because of cognitive or informational constraints; or they can prefer to rely on heuristics when the plan choice problem features a large number of options with complex cost-sharing design. The second decade of the 21st century has seen a burgeoning number of studies assessing the quality of consumer choices of health insurance, both in the lab and in the field, and financial and welfare consequences of poor choices in this context. These studies demonstrate that consumers often find it difficult to make efficient choices of private health insurance due to reasons such as inertia, misinformation, and the lack of basic insurance literacy. These findings challenge the conventional rationality assumptions of the standard economic model of insurance choice and call for policies that can enhance the quality of consumer choices in the health insurance domain.
Effectiveness and Availability of Treatment for Substance Use Disorders
Dominic Hodgkin and Hilary S. Connery
Drug and alcohol use disorders, also called substance use disorders (SUD), are among the major health problems facing many countries, contributing a substantial burden in terms of mortality, morbidity, and economic impact. A considerable body of research is dedicated to reducing the social and individual burden of SUD. One major focus of research has been the effectiveness of treatment for SUD, with studies examining both medication and behavioral treatments using randomized, controlled clinical trials. For opioid use disorder, there is a strong evidence base for medication treatment, particularly using agonist therapies (i.e., methadone and buprenorphine), but mixed evidence regarding the use of psychosocial interventions. For alcohol use disorder, there is evidence of modest effectiveness for two medications (acamprosate and naltrexone) and for various psychosocial treatments, especially for less severe alcohol use disorder syndromes. An important area for future research is how to make treatment more appealing to clients, given that client reluctance is an important contributor to the low utilization of effective treatments. A second major focus of research has been the availability of medication treatments, building on existing theories of how innovations diffuse, and on the field of dissemination and implementation research. In the United States, this research identifies serious gaps in both the availability of SUD treatment programs and the availability of effective treatment within those programs. Key barriers include lack of on-site medical staff at many SUD treatment programs; restrictive policies of private insurers, states, and federal authorities; and widespread skepticism toward medication treatment among counseling staff and some administrators. Emerging research is promising for providing medication treatment in settings other than SUD treatment programs, such as community mental health centers, prisons, emergency departments, and homeless shelters. There is still considerable room to make SUD treatment approaches more effective, more available, and—most importantly—more acceptable to clients.