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Returning a Favor via Social Media Could Drive Healthier Habits, UMD Research Shows

Study Participants Were More Likely to Exercise to Help a Friend Than Themselves

By Carrie Handwerker

Illustration of runners and a heart

Illustration by Shutterstock

In an experiment devised by UMD researchers, participants who ran 18 miles over two weeks to repay a favor from friends were more likely to complete the challenge than participants who ran to earn prizes for themselves.

The chance to repay a favor could be a more powerful motivator than personal gain, new research by University of Maryland information systems researchers found. 

The groundbreaking study from Maryland Smith’s Center for Health Information and Decisions Systems is the first to examine how reciprocity could be used as a motivator in incentive program to influence healthy behaviors. Center Co-directors Ritu Agarwal and Guodong “Gordon” Gao, and Che-Wei Liu Ph.D. ’18, now an assistant professor at Indiana University Bloomington, collaborated on the research, forthcoming in MIS Quarterly.

The idea has its roots in the age-old norm of returning a favor. Previous research has studied reciprocity in sales settings and other scenarios, but this paper is the first to look at how it can be used to encourage healthy activities we might otherwise forego to remain on the couch.

“Self-control is a problem that all humans struggle with,” Agarwal said. “If we can use this innate tendency of humans to want to give back gifts as a way of driving them toward more healthy behaviors, maybe we can help people accomplish health goals.”

The researchers ran a rigorous, randomized field experiment with 1,700 pairs of participants in an online Twitter-like platform for runners. They devised an experiment to see what motivated inactive runners to hit the pavement again to log 18 miles in two weeks; one group was challenged to run the 18 miles to earn a raffle ticket to win prizes, while individuals in a second group received a raffle ticket from a friend on the platform, and then were given the opportunity to reciprocate and earn the same chance for that friend by running the 18 miles. 

The result: The group that had to run to earn prizes to pay back their friends was 32% more likely to actually complete the challenge than the participants who ran to earn prizes for themselves.

“Most academic studies examine reciprocity in a lab setting with very short time spans, like within a few hours. Ours is in a real-life setting, it goes beyond hours to two weeks, and it's asking people to run 18 miles, which is really non-trivial. And it works—marvelously well,” said Gao. “We are very impressed with the power of reciprocity.”

The results also reveal that the magnitude of the effect hinges on how well-acquainted the givers and receivers are. The effect was strongest when the people knew each other moderately well, but not too well, likely because there’s little incentive to maintain a relationship with strangers, and your closest friends probably won’t hold it against you if you don’t repay them this time, Agarwal said.

The growth of digital technologies—social media platforms, ubiquitous mobile devices and wearable technology, like Apple watches and Fitbits that constantly monitor behaviors and health—make reciprocity is much easier to implement as a motivator than ever before, providing a new avenue for employers, employees and society to reap a broad range of benefits from improved health, the researchers said.

“(T)he power of this would really come from the large-scale social media platforms,” Agarwal says. “Think about Facebook launching these healthy-behavior-generating programs—I think that would be a very exciting opportunity and it would have a huge impact on public health.”

Agarwal and Gao said the benefits of paying back a friend’s gift likely go beyond physical health to positively affect mental health, too. “We believe that it will make everyone happier,” said Gao. “It could have very powerful effects on mental health.”

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