Betting on Yourself

Commitment devices are an increasingly popular weight-loss method, especially among economists. However, new research from Nicholas Burger and John Lynham indicates that betting on your own ability to lose weight may not be a sure thing. “Despite payoffs of as high as $7,350, approximately 80 percent of people who spend money to bet on their own behavior end up losing their bets.” Does the problem lie with the commitment device? Are there more effective devices than money? (HT: Marginal Revolution) [%comments]


Que the bad jokes about our subconscious preferring to forfeit a gain of something rather than lose its equivalent...


I think the real issue here, specifically as it relates to weight loss, is that it's not a predictable bodily function. More calories lost do not guarantee weight loss, as anyone who has suffered a plateau can attest. Putting money on something as unpredictable as your body should be considered to have the same risks as penny stocks.

hilzoy fangirl

Obviously you should bet AGAINST your ability to lose weight. That way, even if your weight loss plan fails, you'll at least win your bet!

Justin James

That's because most people have no idea how to lose weight beyond the first 10 lbs. (which almost always rebounds a few weeks later, plus a few more). Instead of radically changing their lifestyles, they just replace their processed foods with incredibly processed foods that make healthy-sounding claims on the box that actually mean nothing, like "no added sugar" and "multi-grain".


David Chowes, New York City


Now 67, I have smoked cigarettes since age 15. When I started a pack cost about 25 cents. During the early 60's about half of the adult population smoked. Then, the 1964 Surgeon General report. Yes, it was true -- cigarettes were indeed killers.

By law, each pack added the words: "Cigarette smoking may be harmful to your health.'(Big Tobacco liked that for potential liability law suit defences.)

However, little impact was evidenced in the behavior of smoking. Beginning with Surgeon General Everett Koop -- people began to take the many dangers of cigarettes seriously... And, then > fast forward to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He really went into action -- banning cigarettes first in restaurants, bars... Soon, I believe you won't be able to smoke in your home.

Bloomberg set the template for not only New York -- but tne nation and Western nations. (What would Jean Sartre have to say?)

The 25 cent pack is now about $10 -- due to a huge increases in taxes on all levels of government. In 2006, only 25% of adults continued to smoke... But, since then the curve has remained flat.

If one smokes a pack and a half a day -- you will spend about $5,500 per year to maintain your habit. In ten years (given the same cost per pack) your tab will increase to over $10,000. Even with inflation -- that's a lot of money to spend. And, a lot of money to keep.

Yet, the 25% of smokers who can't or won't stop has remained the same during the past four years... (Certain demographics has a lot to do with this.)

So, I find this to be an almost perfect analogy to your 'betting to lose weight.' Certain passions or addictions are so strong in some people that no amount of money has the capacity to save us from ourselves.

That's also the reason as to why the government can't ban
cigarettes -- we would move smoking into the area of organized crime. Remember the short duration of the well intentioned prohibition?

[Full disclousure: I still smoke.]



It comes down to knowledge of how to lose weight. Most people don't know exactly what they need to do. Now if you couple that with the discipline necessary to eat a balanced healthy meal 5x a day as well as buy it and cook it. Well, good luck. Even world class athletes and billionaires have this problem and they have cooks.

Also few have seen the incentives of being incredibly healthy and fit. When most get to that level, It is almost impossible to become unhealthy and obese.

Do this study, "How many people who were fat, became incredibly (fit single digit body percent) and got fat again?


I think the problem lies in the magnitude of the task, and in the fact that there is no single action that makes or breaks the deal.

I think a better approach would be a micro-betting strategy that is based on action and not on results:

- 99c for a 40 mins exercise
- 99c for a healthy breakfast
- 99c for sticking to alcohol limit

If you break the bets into bets on actions that you can choose to do or not do in a very limited amount of time you might get bigger bang for the bet.

Lloyd Spencer

At least the market for online advertising is working. Right below the article - a google advertisement for lap surgery...


The problem is a lack of understanding of biochemistry. In making this bet, the presumption is that the problem is a psychological one, one of motivation. The reality is that it is a physiological problem. A problem with hormones. Maybe this study will finally get economists to come around.


There are definitely better ways. A while back, there was some special on weight loss (I'm thinking it was reported by John Stossal, or someone like that) where they had two groups. One group had photos taken in bathing suits and if they didn't lose the goal weight, then their photo would be shown on national television. The other group was structured around group motivation and support. Guess which team had the most success?


When it comes to understanding and changing the behavior of individuals, behavioral psychologists are light-years ahead of economists.

Behavior modification plans succeed every day. But they never rely on a single commitment device.

As far as I know, the best book for teaching individuals how to change their own behavior is "Self-Directed Behavior", by Watson and Tharp.