The human brain is wired with biases that often keep people from acting in their best interest. Now, some employers and insurers are testing ways to harness such psychological pitfalls to get people to make healthier choices.

Many companies have long paid employees to stop smoking or lose weight, but with limited success. So some companies are rewriting the rules for doling out financial incentives. Rather than encouraging good behavior with small or one-time payments, some health and wellness plans have begun enrolling employees in lotteries for a chance to win a bigger reward. Other programs are testing whether workers are more likely to make healthy choices if they've staked some of their own money on the outcome.

And some companies are battling people's natural inertia by repeatedly prompting them to decide whether to enroll in a mail-order prescription service, which saves money and gets some patients to take their medications more regularly.

"We wanted to let that inertia work for us," says Bob Ihrie, head of employee benefits for home-improvement chain Lowe's Cos., which worked with pharmacy-benefit manager Express Scripts Inc. to launch the program.

Such approaches stem from the field of behavioral economics, which challenges the conventional economic doctrine that consumers always act as informed, rational decision makers. Instead, behavioral researchers have found, people often exhibit irrational, albeit predictable, biases that lead them not to act in their best interests.

Employers are drawn to such programs because of swelling health-care budgets and the idea that a healthier work force is less costly. Indeed, people's poor decision making is one of the biggest culprits behind major illness. Smoking, obesity and other preventable conditions contribute to 40 percent of premature deaths. And many people have trouble sticking to a regimen of pills that keep diabetes or high blood pressure in check.

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