Betting on Behavior Change

If you’re short on willpower, try a wager. Nutrition Diva explains how to use carrots and sticks to achieve your goals.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
5-minute read
Episode #227

Betting on Behavior Change>

When I ask people why they want to lose weight, they’ll say that they want to be healthier or to reduce their risk of disease. They expect to feel better and have more energy. They believe that they’ll be happier, more attractive to their mates (or potential mates), and more successful at work. That seems like a lot of powerful motivation. And yet even when people can clearly articulate all the many benefits they’d enjoy from eating healthier and losing weight, they often fail to stick to their programs. They often say they just can’t find the willpower to do what’s necessary.

OK, so what if I offered to pay you to lose weight (or quit smoking, or whatever it is you’re trying to do)? Or, what if made you pay me if you failed? A surprising number of people are finding success by signing up for programs that use financial rewards—or penalties—to motivate them to achieve their goals.

Sticks Are More Motivating Than Carrots

I’ve mentioned a website called StickK.com before in an episode on making and keeping resolutions. We’re all familiar with the concept of carrots and sticks as motivators. As the name suggests, stickK.com doesn’t offer a reward (or carrot) for success. Instead, it uses the threat of a stick (in this case, a financial penalty) to keep you from failing. You basically draw up a contract with yourself, agreeing to do (or not do) a certain thing. But

in addition to saying what you intend to do, you also set a financial penalty for failing to do it. Not only that, you provide a credit card, and name a charitable institution that will receive any fines that are assessed. Each week of the contract, you (or your designated referee) has to sign into the website and certify whether you fulfilled your contract. If you didn’t (or you fail to check-in), your credit card is charged the pre-determined penalty.

One of the things that make this work is a particularly interesting quirk of human behavior. Most of us will work twice as hard to keep from losing something we already have than we will to gain something of equal value. In other words, I will go to greater lengths to avoid losing $100 than I will to win $100. The other thing that makes commitment contracts work is that I don’t have to find someone willing to pay me to succeed. I simply have to agree to put my own money where my mouth is.

Carrots and Sticks May Be Most Effective

Another website, called DietBet, has figured out a way to apply both the carrot and the stick. A group of people with a common goal all throw a certain amount of money into the pot. At the end of the game, the pot is divvied up evenly among everyone who met the goal. If you don’t make your goal, you lose your stake. (That’s the stick.) But if you do make your goal, you are doubly rewarded: You don’t lose your money. Plus, you win some more. (That’s the carrot.)

According to the folks at DietBet, about a third of the people who play end up reaching their goal and splitting the pot. But another third, although they don’t quite make it, still make significant progress toward their goal. They might not be winners but I wouldn’t consider it losing either. And, unlike a winner-take-all scenario, the DietBet structure seems to encourage a real sense of camaraderie and mutual support among players.

Learning What Motivates You


The success and popularity of sites like StickK.com and DietBet suggest that financial incentives and penalties can be very effective in motivating people to keep their promises. At least, they appear to be motivating for some people. Obviously, some of the people who put money at risk end up losing it. Perhaps the goal was unattainable. Perhaps they are not as motivated by financial loss. Or, perhaps they didn’t wager enough. As StickK.com co-founder Ian Aires points out in his book, Carrots and Sticks, if the penalty isn’t large enough to be somewhat painful, it ceases to be a deterrent and simply becomes the price of indulging in the forbidden behavior. DietBet confirms that games with higher stakes have a higher percentage of winners.

Choosing the right goals, rewards, and penalties is key here. There’s a lot more about that in Carrots and Sticks. But I think it also depends a bit on your personality. Darla Breckenridge is a psychologist at Green Mountain at Fox Run, a retreat that emphasizes healthy living without dieting. Darla suggests that this sort of approach might be effective for people who thrive in structured environments and like to have very concrete, quantifiable goals.

On the other hand, it might be counterproductive for people who are very hard on themselves or who already feel a lot of shame about their struggle to change unhealthy behaviors. I heard this sentiment echoed by some of you on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page. Laura wrote that she had to work hard to maintain a sense of healthy balance about dieting and that any sort of competitive dieting could lead to disordered eating. I’m glad that Laura has the self-awareness to know that this approach is not for her.

From Short-Term Incentives to Long-Term Success

I also heard from many who have found commitment contracts and/or diet-betting to be very motivating and effective—even fun! It might be just the thing to jump-start your efforts, or to boost you across the finish line. If you decide to experiment, do give a little thought to what happens when the game or contract ends. Stever Robbins, who hosts the wonderful Get-It-Done Guy podcast, points out that once the rewards (or penalties) are removed, you may find it difficult to continue with the desired behavior on your own.

Of course, you can extend a commitment contract indefinitely. As long as you continue with the desired behavior, it costs you nothing but a little bit of time to check in each week. Likewise, if the friendly competition and camaraderie of DietBet helps you achieve your goal, you could always organize a similar game in which the goal is to maintain a healthy weight—or any other positive, quantifiable behavior—over a given period of time.

Keep in Touch

If you have a suggestion for a future show topic or would like to find out about having me speak at your conference or event, send an email to nutrition@quickanddirtytips.com. You can also post comments and questions on my Nutrition Diva Facebook Page. I answer a lot of listener questions in my free weekly newsletter, so if you’ve sent a question my way, be sure you’re signed up to receive that.

Jar of Money image from Shutterstock

About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.