Wait, Vaccine Lotteries Really Work?

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(This idea is actually hard to study. Thaler says he and Katy Milkman, a behavior researcher at the Wharton School and author of How to Change, once thought about running an experiment to give some people $3 lottery tickets to induce them to get flu vaccines. “It would’ve been a nice thing to have done two years ago,” Thaler says. And proposals to give people $100 to get vaccines have run into trouble with university institutional review boards, the groups that monitor the treatment of human subjects in scientific research. One fundamental ethical tenet is that you’re not supposed to coerce or bribe people to participate.)

But when it comes to Covid vaccines, free beers haven’t moved numbers as well as the irrational but fabulous prizes. “Economists think there’s no such thing as a free beer,” Thaler says. “Real people think free beers are good.” But they think even a scant chance at $1 million is better.

In marketing, this overvaluing of the distant win is called “prospect theory”; in gaming terms, it’s an “extrinsic reward,” something fun or useful that’s not inherent to the act. “A fully rational economist from Chicago can’t figure out why people buy lottery tickets,” Monk says. “It’s the same thing happening here. The expected value that people assign to the potential to win $1 million is far higher than the cost to the state.”

This motivational thinking applies to a lot more than vaccines. Monk, who’s also cofounder of the gamified bank Long Game Savings, says “variable-reward prizes” (that’s lotteries) motivate people to increase their savings and improve their personal finances. In one trial, telling people that enrolling in a savings account also enrolls them in a raffle increased savings account enrollments by 40 percent. And auto-enrollment—opt-out instead of opt-in, as is the case for many of the state vaccine lotteries—has an even bigger effect. If you have to opt out of a retirement savings program, 90 percent of people stay in one. Opt in, it’s 50 percent. (That’s called “status-quo bias.”)

A free ride to a vaccination site, and maybe better websites to sign up? Those all help, too, for sure. Again, different kinds of hesitancy have different solutions. When things are easy, people are more likely to do them. That’s “effort bias.” “Do what it takes to give people no excuse for not doing it, and a justification for doing it—in addition to the obvious one, which is, we don’t want to get sick,” Thaler says.

The wild part here is that giving out a few million-dollar prizes is actually cheaper than, say, giving $50 per vaccinated person. The benefits of the behavior change are enormous, of course—more vaccinated people means fewer people in hospitals and a quicker economic recovery. But even at the dollar-on-dollar level, lotteries cost less and have a bigger impact. Ohio spent about $5.6 million on its “Vax-a-Million” program—5 million-dollar prizes and $600,000 for a bunch of scholarships to teenagers who get vaccinated. The lottery turns out to be a force multiplier. “If you had to buy that time on CNN and ABC and NBC and local stations, what would that cost?” Dan Tierney, press secretary for Ohio governor Mike DeWine, told me just a few minutes before the state announced the first winner last week. “Vax-a-Million has been covered in earned media to the tune of $25.8 million. We couldn’t have bought that amount of publicity with just $5 million.”

The same principle holds at United. MileagePlus points don’t expire—a change Bondar made to the program pre-Covid. That’s good if you want a loyalty program to build actual loyalty. But “we would have been giving out, let’s say, 5,000 miles to every customer, and those miles would have sat out there until the customers used them or they disengaged,” Bondar says. “There’s a cost, a liability associated with that.” It wouldn’t have encouraged people to travel now, and United would have risked the chance of everyone redeeming miles at once—a run on the airline. “The cost of running a sweepstakes versus the potential cost of giving every customer a small, certain prize is different,” Bondar says. A small award to every MileagePlus member versus really big awards to just a few? “The latter approach, from an economic standpoint, is a better outcome.”