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Curve Bender

He leans into logic to change patients’ behavior

Why do people eat M&M candies? The logical answer: They taste good.

Matt Wallaert ’05 knows there’s more to it than that.

“If I gave you a bowl of just one color of M&M, you would consume fewer than if I gave you the whole mix, even though they all taste the same,” he says. “People are used to, and addicted to, the colors of M&Ms, and it actually changes their behavior.” 

As chief behavioral officer at Clover Health, a Medicare Advantage insurance plan, Wallaert looks for ways to change people’s behavior so they become healthier. Consider flu shots, for example. Not everyone gets one, despite myriad physicians and campaigns urging them to. Wallaert and his team use a more personal approach, incorporating their members’ priorities to devise interventions that actually resonate. 

“Most people we insure are over 65,” Wallaert says. “This is the No. 1 group that dies from the flu, but what do older people care about more than themselves? Their grandkids.” 

Clover has increased flu shot rates by adjusting its messaging accordingly. 

“What’s missing from traditional health conversations is nuance,” he explains. “Saying, ‘Did you know children are a vulnerable population for the flu? Get a flu shot so your grandkids stay healthy!’ works better with our members than making it all about them. We are not mapping the risk curve — we’re bending it with strategies that produce better health outcomes.”

Wallaert traces the roots of his behavioral science career back to the Psychology of Self-Control course he took with Professor Andrew Ward during his freshman year at Swarthmore. When Wallaert speculated that the authors of a study the class was reading about had overreached in their conclusion, Ward had a surprising response.

“Andrew said, ‘Well, the field has accepted this interpretation. But if you want to respond in an orderly way, you can run your own experiments. Use my lab,’” Wallaert remembers. “Suddenly, here was this promise of the potential to win an argument through science and logic and data rather than race or power or social credibility, and that was very attractive to me.”

A first-generation college student from rural Oregon who majored in psychology and educational studies, Wallaert completed his degree in three years while working 40 hours a week to make ends meet. Last year, he published a book, Start at the End: How to Build Products That Create Change, the proceeds from which support minority and female students in Swarthmore’s Computer Science Department.

“CS is the only science department without an endowment,” he says. “I want my work to change things for people, especially those who do not have a lot of privilege. We need to use positions of privilege to actively create opportunities for all. The greatest use of power is the empowerment of others.”