Last week, I wrote on the perverse incentive structure of gyms that encourages them to discourage (actively or passively) attendance. This week, I’m writing on commitment devices. These are mechanisms that people use to engineer an incentive structure to set them up for success with a difficult task. A few years ago I heard a story from RadioLab told by a woman who was struggling to quit smoking. She decided to set up a small payment to a cause she found repulsive, the KKK I believe, that would go through if she lit up again. I suspect that it wasn’t the potential to lose the value of the amount of money she set aside that influenced her behavior, rather it was the repugnance of the transaction that really “got” her.
Mainstream fitness commitment apps, like Pact and DietBet take a similar approach. They pool money from participants and redistribute based on success with a health regimen. The financial stakes are lower than you might expect would be effective. From Pact’s official materials,
Rewards are based off the number of days committed and completed in your Pact. If you meet your Pact, you get a cash reward for each day committed, paid for by those who didn’t make it. Rewards have generally been $0.30 to $5 per week, depending on the number of activities committed.
Taking into account the high already-existing costs of poor health habits, it seems that–like the woman who quit smoking interviewed by RadioLab–a motivating factor besides the rote utility of the money up for grabs (or loss) seems to be in play. I believe the motivational efficacy of these systems stems, to a significant extent, from a competitive desire to stick it to the losers and the repugnance of being a loser yourself. These apps don’t radically rebalance the broader, quantifiable incentive structure of healthy habits; instead they make the costs immediate and tailoring them to human psychology.