It’s a great time to be a lazy person, this I firmly believe. At the intersection of behavioral science — psychology, economics, neuroscience — and technology lies a major opportunity to, essentially, get us off our butts.
Last week I talked to Jason Jacobs of RunKeeper about how he’s thinking of cracking the motivation question with ideas like designing a playlist that the data suggests makes you run fastest.
Today, I bring you a fascinating Q&A with Steve Driver, an MD/MPH and the chief scientific officer for Pact, the Techstars Boston graduate behind the GymPact app. If you’re not familiar with GymPact, it lets you commit money against your vow to go to the gym. If you don’t meet your goal, you lose the money. If you do, you get it back plus a bit extra (paid for by those who didn’t go).
I asked Driver over email about the scientific underpinnings of GymPact, as well as what the future holds for the company, and for lazy early adopters everywhere.
How do you describe the motivational principle behind Pact and its early success?
GymPact is an app for anyone who (like me) has ever sat on a couch on Sunday night and been motivated to make it to the gym the next week; then sat on that same couch a week later (in a slightly larger divot) disappointed at having not gone. At GymPact, we make an important distinction between long-term motivation and immediate gratification. While long term goals are important (for example exercising regularly in an effort to stave off chronic disease) we are hard wired to make decisions based on immediate rewards and penalties (watching the latest episode of America’s Got Talent usually sounds more appealing in the moment than going for a workout). GymPact helps users to help themselves by resetting payoffs for those critical short-term choices.
Beyond the basic principle of having money on the line, how important is loss aversion to Pact’s model?
Loss aversion is one of the central principles of behavioral economics that makes GymPact so effective. People tend to be motived about two and a half times more by the fear of losing money than they would be by the prospect of winning the same amount of money. If you reached in your pocket right now and found an extra ten-dollar bill, I bet you’d be excited but that probably wouldn’t match the frustration you’d feel if you reached into your pocket expecting to find a ten-dollar bill but instead found a hole.
This concept of loss aversion and its cousin known as prospect theory, are especially important when it comes to helping large groups of people stay motivated. At Pact, I’m responsible for managing our work with insurers and employers interested in keeping health care costs down for their beneficiaries and employees. Because the “healthy” population (those who lack chronic diseases) is so large, it would be very difficult to continuously provide large enough positive incentives to make a meaningful difference. But by providing cash rewards to those who exercise, paid by those who didn’t make it to the gym, our model is both more powerful and sustainable. There’s also an aspect of mutual accountability there that I think people really appreciate.
Thinking about going to the gym specifically, the big bias that comes to mind is “hyperbolic discounting.” Can you explain what that is and how you and your colleagues think about it in the context of GymPact?
Hyperbolic discounting is like a dangerous type of mental nearsightedness that skews perspective and causes us to make choices that just don’t fit with long-term preferences. When exercise is considered, more immediate costs like time and effort spent at the gym appear more in focus than a vague distant goal for better health. So while the goal for better health may be more important, it lacks the immediacy to impact real time decisions on a reliable basis.
This is a problem that has plagued humanity for thousands of years. As the Guardian quoted in a recent article on GymPact: “Aristotle, writing in The Nicomachean Ethics, spoke of ‘akrasia’ (literally ‘lack of mastery’). An akratic person acts against reason because of pathos (emotion).” In addition, Paul writes the following in Romans: “I do not understand what I am doing. For I don’t practice what I want to do, but instead do what I hate.” My point is, this problem is not new and while we’ll leave perpetual bondage to sin to the religious authorities, we may be able to do something about predictably irrational decision errors that lead to physical inactivity and poor health.
The classic Econ 101 view of motivation is centered around financial self-interest, but we know that people are also motivated by altruism, community, a desire for fairness, and more. Do you have any plans to incorporate some of these other motivational “levers” into Pact’s tools?
I think the importance of the social aspect cannot be overstated. Nicholas Christakis at Harvard published a study on the spread of obesity in a large social network over 32 years, in the New England Journal of Medicine back in 2007. What he found is that our behaviors (positive or negative) have a ripple effect that spreads to impact the health of our friend’s friend’s friend. It may sound a little far fetched until you think of the last time you were about to order the double bacon cheese burger but changed your mind after your friend ordered a healthy salad; or if you’ve ever considered taking the elevator to the second floor but instead took the stairs at your friend’s urging. In this way, incentives, like those utilized by GymPact members, need not be applied by the entire population to be effective. Friends of those using GymPact should also be more likely to make it to the gym – so GymPacters, do some more good and tweet those workout confirmations!
Besides GymPact, what other areas are you excited about getting into with Pact’s motivational tools?
Well, the word on the street just might be true. Stay tuned for the ability to fulfill a physical activity pact in multiple different ways. If you like running and you can verify a 30-minute run outside, you should get credit for that effort. This fits with what I think is an important overarching goal of Pact. We believe that individuals are best suited to manage their own wellness and are capable of doing so with the right mix of information, technology and yes, incentives.
What’s a big world-altering motivation problem that you think a “motivation layer” of technology might eventually solve?
I was reading an article recently in which leading economists ranked how to best invest to solve many of the world’s seemingly insurmountable problems and was struck by how many of the problems had to do with children and/or education. But this makes sense when you consider the broad based impact that interventions for children and education can have. As far as incentives, they work best to refocus our attention when benefits are vague and distant and costs are immediate. Aspects of education like classroom behavior at a young age and working toward a degree later in life fit that description well so I think a “motivation later” of technology could potentially play a roll there. In fact, my mother employed a very innovate incentive model in her class as a special education teacher which helped children with behavioral problems to learn so I know there is potential!