The UK tested a classic psychological tactic by paying 64 million restaurant bills

Restaurants are back in business.
Restaurants are back in business.
Image: Reuters/ Dylan Martinez
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If you want to change someone’s behavior, you can try all manner of sophisticated manipulation techniques. There’s paradoxical thinking, or the elaborated social identity model.

Or you could simply pay them.

The UK government put this straightforward and highly effective technique into action this month, by offering to foot half the bill for restaurant meals, up to £10 ($13.20) per person per meal. The scheme was applied to meals eaten in restaurants every Monday through Wednesday in August, and was used for 64 million meals in the first three weeks, according to the treasury.

The policy, called “Eat out to help out,” was introduced to support Britain’s flailing restaurant industry, which saw a 60% drop in sales during lockdown. Restaurants reopened in July, and with fewer than 1,000 new cases of coronavirus a day since then, the UK government made a calculated choice that the risk of infection from indoor dining was outweighed by the value of boosting the economy through restaurants.

The British government, like so many others around the world, has grappled with how to influence public decisions in the face of coronavirus. Offering to pay the bill makes intuitive sense as an incentive, and is backed by behavioral scientists’ assessments of why bargains appeal.

“Happiness is often a relative judgment about the distance between where we are and where we could have been,” behavioral economist Dan Ariely wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2015. “If we think that something could have been better, we feel bad, and if we think that something could have been worse, we feel good by comparison. So when we buy something at a great discount, it is easy to compare our situation to the alternative scenario of paying full price—and we feel fantastic.”

Ariely explored the psychological impact of bargains in his 2017 book, Dollars and Sense. He also showed that people tend to follow in their own footsteps by repeating purchases and actions. This suggests that, once people have had a meal out on the government’s dime, they’re more likely to return to restaurants in the future.

“Eat out to help out” isn’t the first time the British government has turned to behavioral science to shape public actions during coronavirus, though previous strategies haven’t always been effective.

In mid-March, at a time when many other countries with similar rates of the virus were in lockdown, the UK had yet to enforce restrictions. Scientific advisors within the government’s behavioral insight team worried the public would quickly tire of strict lockdown orders. So instead of shutting down large public gatherings, the government encouraged people to wash their hands regularly without otherwise changing their daily routines.

On Mar. 16, 600 behavioral scientists wrote an open letter warning that not enough is known about behavioral fatigue to inform a coronavirus policy. The UK eventually went into strict lockdown on Mar. 23; a government scientific advisor later said 20,000 lives could have been saved if lockdown had started a week earlier.

So far, the dining out scheme seems to have struck a balance between stimulating the economy and reducing the spread of coronavirus, with cases remaining low. But there’s still room for recalculation if restaurant meals eaten during August appear to prompt a spike in cases.