Put your money on the pounds… Would you lose more weight if you had money on the line? According to the results of recently published study, obese people are more likely, in fact, to lose weight successfully if there’s money at stake—specifically their own money along with a bonus.
However, though the researchers found that a program designed to incentivize weight loss by having participants risk losing money if they failed to meet weight loss goals was initially successful, the pounds crept back on after the incentive ended.
Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University published the results of their recent study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine . Part of the basis of this study was to integrate behavioral economics as means to modify self-destructive behaviors. The study authors note that behavioral economics involves the application of psychological insights into standard economics. Previous studies of a shorter duration have shown that financial incentives for weight loss have been successful.
The study itself included 66 participants who were randomly assigned to one of three groups—the control group as well as two groups with using an incentivized weight loss model. All three groups received weight loss counselling from a nutritionist while the two intervention groups additionally used deposit contracts. Basically, the deposit contracts allowed participants to deposit $3 per day and their deposits were matched in account dollar for dollar by the researchers.
It at the end of the month, the participants met their weekly 1lb weight loss goal, they would keep the money. If they failed, they forfeited all of the money. In one arm, the participants were told that the period after 24 weeks was for weight loss maintenance while in the other, no distinction was made.
After 32 weeks, there was no difference in terms of weight loss between the two intervention arms—both lost an average of 8.7 lbs. In contrast, the control group lost an average of just 1.17 lbs.
Following 36 additional weeks after the intervention period of the study had ended during the follow-up, the researchers found that the weight loss differences between the incentivized groups and the control group was no longer significant. Both of the incentivized groups had regained most of the weight that they had previously lost.
One aspect that the study authors attributed to the success of the incentivized groups was the principle of loss aversion. It’s actually a topic discussed at length in the book: Sway: The irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori Brafman. In short, loss aversion can be a very strong motivating force.
“This study contributes to evidence of the effectiveness of incentive systems based on behavioral economics in promoting weight loss. The intervention was designed to take advantage of several effects identified by behavioral economics, including overoptimism and loss aversion. People tend to be over-optimistic in predicting their weight loss; therefore, when asked to put money down at the beginning of the month toward losing weight, most participants did so. Then, after having made a deposit, loss aversion was used to motivate weight loss, as participants did not want to lose the money they had deposited. Finally, consistent with research showing that even small rewards and punishments can have great incentive value if they occur immediately, participants received rapid feedback.”
Back in the real world, money for weight loss could be offered by large employers or insurance plans…