If at First You Don’t Succeed …

Last fall, I saw my recidivist coauthor, Barry Nalebuff, and was struck by how much weight he’d lost. He had a clearly different body shape. I told him he looked great. Barry turned to my spouse (and coauthor) Jennifer Brown and said, “I’m doing it on my own, so I don’t have to use that [expletive] stickK.com.”

I was shocked. Not so much at the language. I’ve heard Barry drop the F-bomb a time or two. But it was so bizarre to have Barry shy away from using a commitment contract. Barry is a world-class game theorist who hasn’t only written about the benefits of commitment devices; he’s also used them to lose weight. He’s the father of the bathing suit diet. Back in 1993 on the first day of a business school course on game theory, Barry promised to teach his last class of the semester in a Speedo if he hadn’t lost fifteen pounds by then. The threat of humiliation was a pretty strong commitment, and sure enough his business students never got to see what I just saw this past summer at the pool – the sight of Barry Nalebuff in a swimsuit.

So it came as a sobering surprise to hear Barry Nalebuff express such unbridled emotion when he said he was dieting on his own to avoid using “that [expletive] stickK.com.” What was he thinking?? Of course, Barry’s cri de coeur has something to do with the fact that I’m one of the cofounders of stickK. To be my friend is to know that a stickK contract is an option.? Implicitly, I think Barry as a game-theorist was already thinking a step ahead.? He understood that if he can’t lose weight on his own, he’s going to have to take bolder action.

I never realized it before, but the mere existence of stickK is providing a service to some people who know of it but never use it. Part of Barry’s motivation to lose weight on his own is to avoid having to use stickK. I must admit that this indirect commitment effect wasn’t foremost in our minds when my cofounders and I set off to create a commitment store. But we’re happy to be of service.

Barry made this backstop benefit of stickK explicit when I asked him later about what prompted him to say what he did.? Barry, with typical acuity, said, “If at first you don’t succeed, then use stickK.”

This story is adapted from a diet booklet that I’ve posted just in time for New Year’s resolutions.? It’s The $500 Diet and for a limited time you can read it for free.

Most diet books are written by physicians and scientists, but The $500 Diet is my attempt to give economics and contract law a chance to change how much you want to eat.?It’s a seven-step plan to strengthen your resolve – to help you make credible New Year’s resolutions.

Would you rather lose a pound next week or $500?

Most people given the choice would find it pretty easy to take off a pound.? That’s the first step.? Now repeat as necessary.

Of course, not everyone can afford to put $500 at risk.? But anybody can afford to risk 10 or 20 percent of their disposable income – some amount that is large enough to get your attention.? The booklet shows you how to use stickK.com‘s layers of accountability to craft a diet that will strengthen your resolve.

Most diet books obsess about what you should put in your mouth.? But information is not the problem.? You already know that to lose weight, you need to eat a bit less or exercise a bit more.? The $500 Diet is a different kind of diet plan because it doesn’t tell you how much to eat or exercise. You are smart enough-with the help of the Internet and dozens of dieting books-to figure that out. What’s unique about The $500 Diet is that it works on another dimension. It lets you set your own incentives to lose weight.

I expect that some of my colleagues will give me grief about publishing a diet booklet.? But I’m participating in a larger trend of law professors breaking the boundaries of law review writing.? My colleagues Jed Rubenfeld and Stephen Carter have written murder mysteries (see, e.g., The Death Instinct and The Emperor of Ocean Park).? My colleague Amy Chua is about to publish an amazing book on parenting, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.? It turns out I’m not even the first law professor to write a diet book.? Susan Estrich beat me to the punch more than a decade ago with Making The Case for Yourself.?? The center cannot hold.

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  1. JoaquinCMS says:

    I love the idea. It is extraodinarily smart to bring together the science of economics with healthy eating. Specially i find smart the part where eating and excercises, the traditional parts of the diet are left to the discression of the reader. Also using incentives set by ourselves is also very productive and might work very well, this is because now people arent subject to a generalized standard, and now diets can be much more personalized. Also incentives are what move the world, and being able to choose incentives is an incentive to do the diet, so im confident it will work very well. I might even buy a book.

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  2. baldie says:

    How come you aren’t rockin’ the goat on your Freakonomics pic?

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  3. Andy says:

    “You already know that to lose weight, you need to eat a bit less or exercise a bit more.” Apologies for getting slightly off-topic, but that statement isn’t really correct. I’d highly recommend the new book by Gary Taubes, “Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It,” which actually reminded me of the Ayers/Nalebuff book “Lifecycle Investing,” despite being on an entirely different subject. In both cases, the author espoused a view that completely rejects the conventional wisdom and supports it with evidence. Ayers/Nalebuff demonstrated that investment leverage can reduce risk, certainly not a mainstream view, and Taubes explains that we have cause and effect reversed when thinking about obesity: We overeat and fail to exercise because we are getting fat (due to an insulin spike caused by carb-eating), not the other way around. (See the Amazon listing for the book for a more complete description of the theory.) So, it might be useful to apply stickK to the dieting context, but only if it’s to motivate people to stick to the non-problematic foods (mainly animal products and non-starchy vegetables). It won’t work if people think they’re doing the right thing by running for 30 minutes and following that up with a tall glass of fruit juice.

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  4. PlainJaneBoring says:

    The Principle of Commitment? Reminds me of the tosh I used to listen to when I went to Amway meetings. Next you’ll be reminding us that according to Freakonomic theory there are no impossibles, merely wonderfully challenging opportunities in which all we have to do to come out in front is to ascertain the likely opportunity cost of every decision.

    I wish that people would wake up one day and discover that economics is no more a science than is Gestalt Theory. The Emperor has no clothes!

    You wanna use science to gain insight into the world? Do the hard yards and master mathematical physics.

    Trouble is? Too hard for the typical NYT reader. None of your wishy-washy, hand waving, feel-good psychobabble pseudo-science for the mathematically challenged masses there. So for feel-good, baby-talk theories about the way the world works, turn to Freakonomics instead. Tedious.

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  5. Drill-Baby-Drill drill Team says:

    Unlike Rocket Science or Brain Surgery, there is no skill, trick or special knowledge to LOSING WEIGHT. Everybody knows the solution! Ask a 5 year old.


    Every fat person knows this. And 2/3 or Americans are either Overweight or Obese, but despite knowing better are helpless with their condition.

    But between the IDEA and the EXECUTION lies the Shadow.

    ……And it is the same problem with EDUCATION, BUDGETING and FAILING GOVERNMENT.

    (Please enclose picture of said economist in a Speedo.)

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  6. nemo says:

    Oh no, weigh-in is tomorrow and I need to drop another 2 pounds! Guess I’ll just get even more dangerously dehydrated than last week.

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  7. keylaCMS says:

    This is a great idea. Most people nowadays try to lose weight in very unhealthy ways, skipping meals and spending crazy amounts of time in the gym for example, which is what most people say is the best thing to do. This book though brings something different to the table. It is a great incentive for those people who are like me, and that are tired of trying the same thing over and over again but it never works. The $500 Diet sounds like a very helpful book because it is something different and interesting that will motivate people to push themselves harder and will make them think at the same time. It is also a more personalized way of getting healthy since you as a reader can use it the way YOU want to.

    StickK.com can also be very useful but it depends, because some people think that if they spend 1 hour in the treadmill they can later on eat 3 scoops of ice cream and it will be all good because they already excercised. For people like this setting or not setting the goals will be the same. But at the same time it will be of much people to those who need motivation and incentives to push themselves harder and get to where they want to be.

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  8. AaronS says:

    I cannot think of anything (outside of the threat of harm to me or a loved one) that would FORCE me to lose weight more than knowing I would have to strut around in a Speedo in front of all my friends.

    If I’d rather die than do that (and I almost would!), then I’m sure I’d rather lose weight than do that.

    I’ll bet that being forced to wear a Speedo (or for the ladies, a thong bikini) would be enough to motivate 99.9% of us to do…ANYTHING. Finish our education. Read the works of Shakespeare. Climb Mt. Everest. Sail the Seven Seas. Bike across America. Walk the Appalachian Trail. Write a book. Whatever….

    Maybe instead of a StickK.com site, we need an “I’ll Wear A Speedo” site?

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