Key insights from behavioural economics may help explain the demand for health insurance. We provide two potential explanations: (1) other key aspects stemming from behavioural economics other than risk reduction, and access to otherwise unaffordable healthcare services provide a welfare gain to individuals when taking out SHI; and/or (2) insured make suboptimal choices.
Potential aspects that provide a welfare gain from taking out SHI
A first potential aspect that may provide a welfare gain to insured when taking out SHI is loss aversion, which is a key insight from the ‘cumulative prospect theory’ developed by Tversky and Kahneman . Loss aversion regards the phenomenon that ‘losses loom larger than gains’ and that ‘the aggravation that one experiences in losing a sum of money appears to be greater than the pleasure associated with gaining the same amount’ . Research concerning loss aversion and insurance decisions has been done in the past [e.g. 10, 16], but not regarding SHI. Loss aversion plays a role only in mixed prospects (i.e. where the outcome of a prospect is either a gain or a loss). In such mixed prospects, the presence of loss aversion depends upon the individuals’ reference point: prospects coded as losses from this reference point are affected by loss aversion. It is often assumed that the current state of wealth is the reference point in any decision. Subsequently, the taken reference point concerning the decision to take out SHI (i.e. either SHI or no SHI) is essential to the effect of loss aversion. When taking out SHI (especially via the internet), Dutch insurers guide individuals through the different choices they have to make: which BHI, which deductible level and which SHI to apply for. With respect to the choice of the SHI, some insurers attach virtual labels to one of the offered policies stating ‘most commonly chosen (in your situation)’, nudging insured to take out SHI by carefully setting the default option. Next to the fact that most insured already had SHI in the previous year (i.e. their current state of wealth), this might additionally provide individuals with a reference point equal to having a SHI. From this reference point, an aversion to potential out-of-pocket expenses for healthcare services not covered by SHI (i.e. in case of not taking out SHI) could be created and a preference for the status quo (i.e. having SHI) could arise. This would imply that in the presence of loss aversion, the welfare gain from taking out SHI would be higher than in the absence of loss aversion.
A second potential aspect that may provide a welfare gain from taking out SHI is ambiguity aversion (sometimes also referred to as uncertainty aversion). Ambiguity aversion captures individuals’ preference for prospects with known probabilities over prospects with unknown probabilities and was first presented by Ellsberg . In a hypothetical experiment, individuals were confronted with two urns. The first urn contained 100 red and black balls in an unknown ratio and the second urn contained exactly 50 red and 50 black balls. The majority of respondents preferred to bet on either red or black in urn two rather than in urn one, although the expected outcome for both urns was the same, indicating ambiguity aversion. Missing information that is relevant and could be known creates the uncertainty about probabilities. From ambiguity aversion it then follows that individuals will value provision of any information that reduces their ambiguity, even if it will not change their decision, while standard economic theory predicts that the demand for information depends on its value in making decisions. When deciding to take out SHI, ambiguity aversion might create a preference for taking out SHI. This is caused by the fact that uncertainty (or ambiguity) is present regarding the choice option of not taking out SHI. After all, insured do not know (and are bad at estimating) their probability that healthcare expenses occur that could have been covered by SHI. With SHI this type of ambiguity is absent and could therefore provide a welfare gain.
Liquidity constraints are a third potential aspect that may provide a welfare gain from taking out SHI to insured. Liquidity constraints imply that individuals do not have the financial possibilities to free up an (substantial) amount of money at some point in time. For instance, if individuals do not take out SHI, but unexpectedly need several treatments from a healthcare provider that are not covered by BHI, they might not be able to pay the bill they receive. This might be due to the fact that they are financially illiquid. Since this situation could be prevented, at least for healthcare services that are covered by SHI, individuals might be more inclined to take out SHI. Of course, individuals then have to pay a (additional) monthly premium but they prevent the unpleasant situation where they cannot pay a large bill (or even forego care) due to liquidity constraints. This would imply that in the presence of liquidity aversion, the welfare gain from taking out SHI would be higher than in the absence of liquidity aversion.
A fourth potential aspect that may provide a welfare gain from taking out SHI is debt aversion. Debt aversion stems from mental accounting theory  and is shown by individuals’ preference to prepay for consumption and to get paid for work after completion. Essentially, individuals dislike the feeling of ‘having the meter running’. A phenomenon called the flat rate bias indicates that individuals prefer flat-rate pricing schemes even if they pay more for the same usage. Debt aversion is explained by two motives: (1) individuals hope to enjoy the product or service untroubled from payment concerns, and (2) individuals want to avoid the unpleasant experience of paying for consumption that has been enjoyed already. So, debt aversion predicts that insured prefer flat-rate pricing schemes (e.g. BHI or SHI), and dislike paying for healthcare after consumption. After all, with SHI, healthcare services (up to a maximum) do not have to be paid after usage, but are prepaid through a monthly flat rate. Without SHI, the individual receives the bill after usage of the healthcare service, which is not preferred as a result of debt aversion. This would imply that, in the presence of debt aversion, the welfare gain from taking out SHI would be higher than in the absence of debt aversion.
Making a suboptimal choice
An alternative explanation for the high uptake of SHI in the Netherlands is that a large number of insured make suboptimal choices due to several behavioural economic aspects, meaning that individuals take out SHI while theoretically not taking out SHI would be ‘optimal’.Footnote 1
A first potential aspect that could indicate why insured make a suboptimal choice when taking out SHI may be individuals’ limited knowledge regarding SHI policies. After all, insured are known to have limited knowledge about their health insurance  and to misunderstand complex price schedules including premiums and cost sharing arrangements . Dutch individuals, for instance, do not know what type of health policy they have and are ignorant with respect to aspects such as deductibles, coverage and healthcare providers covered. There are two reasons why it could be expected that limited knowledge indeed affects the insured’s decision regarding SHI. Firstly, it could be expected that insured do not (exactly) know what they insure against by taking out SHI. Insured could, for instance, not know which benefits are covered and which coverage limits and cost sharing arrangements apply. They might feel like they insure unpredictable and large potential losses, but might be unaware that they are (also) insuring regular dental check-ups. Secondly, it could be expected that insured do not know the costs of healthcare services that are (not) covered by insurance. This makes it hard for insured to make their own trade-off between the premium for SHI and the healthcare services covered by SHI, potentially causing them to make a suboptimal choice. Additionally, making this trade-off might be complex and might impose a high cognitive burden. This could especially be the case for individuals with low levels of numeracy and/or health literacy.
A second potential aspect that could explain why insured take out SHI regards social comparison , where imitation is the most frequent form of peer effect. A norm to conform to the peer (e.g. family and friends) may explain why peer choices, and thus social comparison, indeed matters. Individuals reflect upon what their peers decide and might think ‘if my peers are purchasing insurance, I should purchase insurance for myself as well’. The behaviour of peers might potentially affect the decision to take out SHI as well: ‘if many of my friends and family take out SHI, I will do too, but if almost nobody takes out insurance, I am also not going to take out SHI’. As long as many insured take out SHI, social comparison could potentially explain why many insured take out SHI.
Decision avoidance is a third potential aspect that could indicate why insured make a suboptimal choice concerning their SHI. Decision avoidance implies a tendency to avoid making a choice by postponing it or by seeking an easy way out that involves no action or no change . Several underlying factors could contribute to decision avoidance. Firstly, a reluctance to take action to change the current state (i.e. omission bias) could result in decision avoidance. Due to this omission bias, insured may automatically renew their current health insurance policy, which mostly includes a SHI. A second underlying factor regards choice and information overload. Research in both economics and psychology questions whether more choice is always in the consumer’s interest. Particularly when choice involves health and money––both part of the decision to take out SHI––consumers facing many choices may revert to the status quo even if superior options are available. With respect to the Dutch SHI, many different insurers offer many different types of insurances, with different benefit packages, for different premiums, with different cost sharing arrangements and reimbursement maximums. This could cause the individual to be overwhelmed by too much choice and subsequently make the insured defer the choice and eventually not make any decision at all. A third underlying factor of decision avoidance regards search and transaction costs. Consumer search is costly and a rational consumer will search until the cost of additional searching outweighs its expected benefits. Transaction and search costs, with respect to the SHI, regard the time and effort it takes for an individual to determine whether or not to take out SHI and, if so, which SHI to take out. Search and transaction costs might be very high since insured have many decisions and trade-offs to make regarding their SHI. This could, again, cause insured to automatically renew their current health insurance policy. A fourth underlying factor of decision avoidance regards regret avoidance, which implies that whenever choice can induce regret, individuals have a tendency to eliminate the choice. Regret avoidance helps explain individuals’ preference for first-dollar coverage, since many individuals find decisions that involve a trade-off between healthcare and money unpleasant. Consequently, insured (again) might take out SHI, because they may regret not taking out SHI if healthcare expenses do occur and have to be paid for out-of-pocket while it would, in retrospect, have been financially profitable to take out SHI. In sum, decision avoidance could cause insured to make suboptimal choices regarding their SHI.