Obesity and Financial Motivation

BBQ steak dinner

The company that conducted a study of obese Mayo Clinic employees used to be called Gympact before the name was shortened to simply Pact. Their program is available online, where it is used by at least one adult Childhood Obesity News visitor, who endorses it. An overview of it, written by David Ahn, MD, appeared online:

GymPact asks users to make a two-fold commitment: for each week, they must in advance 1) set a target number of gym visits for the upcoming week and 2) agree to a fine ($5-$50) for every number of visits they fall short of that goal. Then, at the end of the week, those that succeed in carrying out their pact are rewarded the money paid out by the users who did not meet their goals.

GymPact beautifully executes a very simple concept of using negative reinforcement…. Both its business model and utility for end-users are fairly transparent: motivate users to work out by giving a fine to them if they do not reach their goal.

Dr. Ahn admits that one of his initial concerns was the human propensity to cut ourselves a lot of slack, to the point of frankly cheating the system. If nobody admitted to skipping gym sessions, there would be no fund of collected fines when payout time came around. This fear was not realized, and he suggests that the reward “is so small that it provides very little incentive to cheat, though it is still enough to provide satisfaction for the honest users.”

To recap, we have seen that the lure of a big money prize can be effective in persuading adults to substantially change their behavior — that is, if you define effectiveness as something that works in the short term. Also, thanks to research done by various scientific bodies, it seems fair to say that small monetary prizes only work if they continue forever, but even bribery isn’t reliable once a person has gotten used to it.

What about children?

Todd Benjamin, CNN’s International Finance Editor, wrote about a European study:

Scientists in Switzerland gathered data on more than 100 families. The families had at least one obese adult and one obese child. They had to follow one of four programs including motivational letters and different diets.

The final option was cold hard cash, bribing the kid — five euros for every kilogram they lost, and five euros each time they improved their body mass index score.

In the words of Professor Claus Luley: “We found that giving the money works in children. They were certainly eager to get their hands on the money.”

Benjamin asked his online readers to respond to the report, and many did, though their experiences were mainly with chores and homework rather than dietary issues. An idea mentioned more than once is that a bribe and a reward are two different things. A bribe is agreed upon ahead of time and is in essence a contract.

A reward, on the other hand, is not promised in advance, and not framed as “pay” or a thing to which the child is entitled. Neither expected nor guaranteed, it is a spontaneous and genuine expression of pride and encouragement.

One parent said that when his child gets a good report card, the family goes out to eat and the event is characterized as a celebration, not as a reward. Another respondent felt that, in fairness, if rewards are given they should be for the effort expended, not solely for stellar “winning” results. Others were against the notion of either bribing or rewarding children for anything they should already be doing in the first place, like helping around the house, making good grades, or maintaining their own good health. A father who signed in as “Jeff” wrote:

Bringing up kids involves teaching them values. We hope that they will study because of the thirst to learn, not to make a quick buck…. Family members should feel responsible to each other for more than a superficial commercial motive. I will not educate my kids to do anything in the family for monetary reward.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Physician’s Review,” imedicalapps.com, 01/01/14
Source: “Economics 101: Bribe your kids?” CNN.com, 06/03/08
Image by Lars Plougmann

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Childhood Obesity News | OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say | Dr. Robert A. Pretlow
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