As we start a New Year, many of us formulate New Year’s resolutions. Some of us just think about them. Some of us write them down. But several new studies illustrate just how hard it is to make a commitment, and equally, how critically important it is to really commit oneself to achieving an important goal, such as weight loss.
In fact, it’s not overstating the case to say that making a true commitment to achieving an important goal is the single most important step towards achieving change.
How does one make a true commitment? One way is to set up a structure that will provide continuous motivation to achieve the goal. At Yale University, economist Dean Karlan has established a Web site (www.stickk.com) that allows users to enter into a “Commitment Contract” whereby they risk a defined amount of money that will be paid to either a charity, an “anti-charity” (meaning an organization whose values and/or goals are inconsistent with your own), or to a personal “foe” (someone you dislike) if you fail to achieve your goal in the timeframe you provide. The Web site already has 30,000 registered users.
However, another study in the American Economic Review found that paying for a gym membership does not constitute a true commitment, because the upfront fee is a sunk cost, and the decision to not to the gym doesn’t have a financial cost. This is why most new gym members go fairly regularly for one or two months, and then stop attending.
A third study by Dr. Kevin Volpp of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine published in JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association), found that not only would subjects lose more weight when being paid (vs. subjects who were not being paid for weight loss), but that – among the subjects who were provided with a financial incentive to lose weight – those who risked losing their own money as a result of not achieving weight loss goals lost more weight than subjects who stood to simply gain money from weight loss.
The principle in all cases is loss aversion, a well-documented trait that seems universal across cultures and demographics. Loss aversion means we are more likely to follow a correct (i.e., healthy) course of action to avoid losing something we already have, than we are in order to gain some new benefit.
This type of thinking is behind an innovative new policy being proposed by the Governor of New York State. Facing a budget shortfall, Governor David Patterson has proposed making up some of the gap with a new 18% tax on non-diet sugary beverages, including soft drinks and other non-nutritional drinks. Behavioral economists believe that such a tax could help reduce consumption of calorie-dense beverages, and perhaps make a dent in the obesity epidemic. Simply put, people are less likely to make unhealthful decisions if the cost of making such decisions is higher.
However, as we know, making the commitment to such a tax or structure is likely the hardest part. Media organizations have already labeled the proposal the “obesity tax” and polls reveal a clear majority of New Yorkers opposed to making this commitment.
Of course, obesity is such a complex challenge involving biology, the environment, and behavior, that making a single change like this isn’t likely to make a significant difference. Even getting paid for weight loss (or better, risking your own money) may change behavior temporarily, but likely not permanently. For example, the JAMA study reported only modest weight losses for the obese subjects (13-14 lbs. over a 4 month period for subjects), and there was no follow-up study to demonstrate that the weight loss was sustained. On a similar note, we are not aware of any follow-up studies involving participants on The Biggest Loser television program.
As we know from the research, only a comprehensive weight management program designed and run by professionals to effect lifestyle change is likely to make a permanent difference in your or your child’s life. So if you’re looking to make a true commitment to weight loss and health this New Year, take a look at a Wellspring Camp, Academy or Retreat. Enrolling in a Wellspring program is a true commitment that will help you achieve your goal.