Carrots and StickKs…Achieving Behavior Change Goals

Last week I attended the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Association for Behavior Analysis International in Seattle, Washington.  It’s a meeting that I have attended nearly every year for the past 20 years.  As the years go by I find myself less and less interested in most of the presentations there.  But this year, a really compelling guy was invited to give the Presidential Scholar’s Address.

That guy was Ian Ayres, co-founder of the company  Ian is on the faculty of the Yale School of Management.  He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from M.I.T. and a J.D. from Yale.  In short, he’s no dummy.

So why is this guy presenting at a Behavioral Science conference? Because his online company,, offers a fascinating service to users…the opportunity to commit to a contract for changing their behavior.  The behavior can be selected from a list of the most common commitments, like lose weight, stop smoking, and the like, or a custom commitment can be defined by the user.  The user selects the final goal for the commitment and the site makes a recommendation for weekly goals to achieve incrementally.  Signing up and using the site is free.

Part of the program involves inviting a “referee” to confirm that you have made the weekly progress you’ve committed to and “supporters” to cheer you on.  But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the program is the stakes.  Users may choose to commit to the contract with no stakes, or they may put money at stake.  This money may be allocated to go to a charity, if they meet their weekly goals, or it may be allocated to go to an anti-charity if they do not.  The groups available as anti-charities are quite polarizing, as you might imagine.  Included are Pro-Life and Pro-Choice groups, Pro-Romney and Pro-Obama Political Action Committees, and the National Rifle Association and Pro-Gun Control groups, to name a few.  So the idea here is that users are more motivated to meet their goals because they don’t want money to go to a group whose agenda they don’t agree with.  In other words, they are motivated to meet their goal in order to avoid an aversive consequence.  For corporate groups, will design a custom program and portal.  Some corporate groups allow their employees to earn money by meeting their goals.

According to the statistics on the site today, more than 156,000 commitments have been made and more than $10M is on the line for these commitments. When Ian spoke to our group, he told us that more than 75% of commitments are achieved by users.  (It is true, however, that most users are self-reporting on their achievement, so this is likely an overestimate of the true success rate.)  Even without money on the line, we know that self-monitoring is reactive….monitoring alone is likely to change behavior, without any other consequences.  But according to the user statistics cited by, their users are twice as likely to achieve their commitments if they have money at stake.

So in order to really test out the model, I created my own commitment contract today.  My goal is to shed some pounds, but also to experience first-hand what the process is like.  I did not put any money at stake, so don’t even ask me what my anti-charity is!  But I will publish my progress here and on my Facebook page as well.  My goal is to lose at least one pound per week until I reach my goal.  If you decide to try as well, please friend me there and we can cheer each other on!

The one part I haven’t figured out yet is how will monetize their service.  The service is free to users and it doesn’t appear that takes a percentage of the money paid out to charities and anti-charities.  I would assume that the custom corporate service has a fee attached.  But otherwise, the only obvious money generator is the book that Ian Ayres has authored, called “Carrots and Sticks” that is available for purchase through the site.  We will have to stay tuned to see if that changes.

Now, our collective assignment…the site is restricted to users who are at least 13 years old, for obvious reasons.  But please go check out the site and then let’s have a discussion here.  How might we use a similar approach for kids and education?  Do you think we could have a similar site, with the necessary privacy provisions, for kids to set their own goals for school?  What kinds of goals would we encourage them to set?  And what could their stakes be?

You can follow on twitter:

About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
This entry was posted in Learner Behavior, Technology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s