Websites pay users who meet New Year's resolutions

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Media caption,
Jeff Mines admits he is still "tempted every single day" to fall back into bad habits

It's more than a week into 2012, and the resolutions which seemed so reasonable at the end of December may now have already fallen by the wayside.

For those looking to stay on the straight and narrow, outside intervention in the form of iPhone apps and websites could help.

These sites apply the theory of behavioural economics to personal behaviour change.

In other words, they fine you if you won't get your lazy self to the gym or toss those disgusting cigarettes once and for all - and in some cases, pay you if you do.

The programs, StickK, GymPact and 21 Habit are all based on research showing that people are more likely to meet their commitments if the stakes are high.

StickK asks users to make a "commitment contract" regarding desired behaviour, whether it's to make the bed every morning, spend more time with family, or work out three times a week.

Users can then establish stakes for not meeting that commitment and appoint a referee to keep them honest.

The stakes need not be monetary, but if they are, the website charges the user's card when they fall short.

GymPact focuses on just gym habits: via the website or app, users set a goal for weekly gym attendance and decide what to wager on achieving it.

If they do succeed, verified by checking into a fitness centre via GPS, they're paid. If not, they pay the site, which then redistributes the money to other gym-goers.

With 21 Habit, users make a three-week pact to do something once a day, be it run five miles, cease nail-chewing, write in a journal, and give the site $21 (£13.68).

For the next 21 days, users self-report whether they made their goal. For every day they do, they get a dollar back. For every day they don't, their dollar goes to charity.

Cost v benefits

The idea of using a carrot or a stick to influence healthy choices is not a new one.

As American companies have found themselves exposed to rising healthcare costs incurred by their workers, the study of behavioural economics took on more urgency.

"Companies are seeing healthcare costs go up, and they're looking for some way to bend that curve," says Mark Stehr, associate professor of economics at the LeBow college of business at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

As a result, numerous studies have looked at what makes people choose healthy behaviour, and overwhelming evidence shows that rewards and incentives can keep people engaged.

Image caption,
Can logging in keep you working out?

"Biologically we are all more sensitive to immediate gains and losses, or costs, then we are to more delayed consequence," says Stephen T Higgins, professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Vermont.

"When you're on your couch and want to exercise, the thing you are most sensitive to is immediate costs. The benefit is delayed."

In other words, the desire to have a bikini body by June doesn't seem worth the immediate cost of having to trudge through the cold to sweat for an hour, especially when a Downton Abbey television marathon beckons.

By adding an immediate financial incentive, or making the cost of not achieving your goal immediately more painful, sticking to a healthy behaviour can become easier.

Technological boost

While studies have shown the power of money to motivate behaviour, the application of this information had mostly been available to participants in university-backed studies or incentive programmes sponsored by an employer.

Sites like StickK, 21Habit, and GymPact, however, harness the same tools for individual use.

StickK, which has been available for consumer use since 2008, has a version of the programme dedicated for corporate use. It also makes the software available to researchers studying incentives.

Researchers who study behavioural economics say marrying this philosophy with technology could be an excellent fit.

Most people experience two very distinct attitudes when trying to achieve a goal: the enthusiastic person who packs a sports bag in the morning fully intending to hit the gym after work, becomes the demotivated workout-dodger who trudges through the door 10 hours later.

An app that encourages users to keep their promises, even when they're at a weak point, can help reinforce the first, more energetic attitude.

"Here I am, I'm so motivated, but at night when I come home I'm so tired," says Shahram Heshmat, professor of public health at the University of Illinois in Springfield.

"If there's a voice that reminds me that this is a vulnerable time, it can help maintain motivation.

"In a way, you are outsourcing your self-control to some of these gadgets."

And because the motivation increases the more quickly rewards are delivered, an app or website is well-suited for aiding this approach, says Prof Higgins.

"These apps can be very important because they reward behaviour right away," he says.

There are drawbacks, mainly that the actions are self-reported. But people who enter into these kinds of commitments usually want to change, and thus take the process seriously, says Mr Stehr.

In his research, his team offered participants the chance to sign a commitment contract after a study on incentivising gym habits ended.

While only 15% of the group decided to pursue commitment contracts, two-thirds of them were successful in reaching their goals.

But what happens when the incentive stops?

While these programmes have shown definite benefits in the short term, "long term is really the question," says Mr Stehr, who notes that there has not been a lot of long-term investigation into the after-effects of such incentive programmes.

What studies do exist mostly deal with incentives as a way to curb drug abuse and addiction, and in those cases, there's "overwhelming evidence" that incentive programmes help even after the incentive stop, says Dr Higgins.

When it comes to health and fitness, "those studies that are available show you can improve weight loss and sustain the gains following the discontinuation of the incentive".

On the other hand, he says, if an incentive programme is working, "Who says we have to discontinue?"