Guest post by:
Dr. Arshavir Blackwell
Stickk is a web-based motivational tool that describes itself as an online “Commitment Store.” One of its founders, Yale Economics Professor Dean Karlan, developed the system.
Users sign contracts to achieve goals: losing weight, quitting smoking, exercising more, for example. Karlan and his cofounders claim their site is based upon sound psychological principles; in particular, two well-known principles of behavioral economics: 1) people don’t always do what they say that they want to do and 2) incentives work.
Stickk has been available since 2007 and as of this writing Stickk’s website boasts:
- $11,523,156 “on the line” (more on what that means in a moment)
- 174,020 commitments created
- 300,659 workouts completed
- 2,502,250 cigarettes not smoked
This is not a website that provides motivation via vague exhortations to be a better person. Stickk is quite concrete in its methods and its goals.
How It Works
Say that you want to lose 25 pounds in time for the Hawaiian-themed office Christmas party where everyone wears leis and swimsuits. Go to the Stickk website, create an account, and enter your goal, e.g., weigh 175 pounds by December 20.
Each week, you report your weight (or whatever your goal is—the best one I saw listed was “Have no more John sex”) and Stickk tells you if your week’s loss keeps you on track for your final goal. If you’re trying to lose 25 pounds over 25 weeks, and you lose a pound that week, you have reached your week’s goal.
But Wait There’s More!
So far this is just a normal performance-tracking website. But there are two optional features designed to make it more effective:
First, you can designate a referee. Every week, this person confirms your progress in order to prevent cheating.
Second, you can put money on the line. Let’s say you wager $250. Divide this over the number of weeks that your goal is in play. Every week that you fail to lose a pound, you forfeit ten dollars: $250/25 weeks = $10 (they deduct it automatically from your credit card). Again, a referee can improve effectiveness by keeping you honest.
Where Does the Money Go?
Here is Stickk’s mean little trick: you choose an “anti-charity,” a group whose work you strongly disapprove of. When you lose, they get it.
This small, yet devious, bonus feature makes the punishment that much more burdensome. Did that pizza binge this weekend result in your donating $25 to the Organization for Experimentation on Unwanted Puppies? Better luck next time.
But, Does It Work?
I have used Stickk twice, each time to lose about 25 pounds. Both times I used a wager tied to an anti-charity, and never you mind which.
The first time, it worked. The second time, it did not. From the ashes of my failure, here are observations which might improve Stickk and give you a better chance of succeeding. But first, a bit about behavioral psychology to provide some context.
Punishment Versus Reward
Psychologists have long studied the dynamics of punishment versus reward in motivating behavior.
Punishment is defined as any action which decreases a behavior. Zapping a rat with an electric shock when it goes in to a particular corner of its cage is punishment. Over time (and pretty fast; rats are smart) it will no longer demonstrate the behavior of going into that part of the cage.
Reward is defined as any action which increases a behavior. Giving a rat a yummy treat when it goes into a certain (hopefully different) part of its cage is a reward. Over time, it will tend to demonstrate the behavior of going into that part of the cage.
You and I are no different. Read more