“Bod”-havioral Economics Part One: Experiment Design

In exactly 6 weeks and one day (plus the duration of one red-eye flight with a tragically long layover in Orlando), I will be on the island of Jamaica. In a villa. On the ocean. As a bridesmaid. This is a vacation where photos will abound.

I already know I’ll be joy-crying nonstop, disheveling my makeup in every shot. But for the photos where I can KEEP-IT-TOGETHER-DANA? I want to feel great and look good. Enter: Operation Beach Bod.

Fortunately, I’m not the only wedding-goer hoping to be at their best for the occasion. My friend Kelsey texted me the following at the end of February (I’m paraphrasing and removing profanities below):

I have an idea with fitness motivation. What if we start a Facebook group and we have a challenge for March. Everyone puts in $10, and if you’re successful, then you get your name put into a drawing at the end of the month. Winner gets the pot.

As a junkie of the behavioral economics non-fiction genre (think Freakonomics, Nudge, Switch, Blink, and other catchy one-word titles with lengthy, wonky subtitles), I was totally on board. Not only is this a financial incentive, but there’s a social disincentive at stake. Add in the fact that I’m intrinsically competitive? Let’s do this.

After some back and forth, Kelsey and I teased out the parameters – and even recruited three other Jamaica-bound souls to join this experiment with us. Here’s what we came up with:

Kelsey and I made some key decisions in the experiment design that are worth calling out.

  • Each person should set their own individualized goal (something challenging and meaningful), as opposed to all of us sharing a group goal. Goals should be about doing something positive, like exercise, rather than something restrictive, like dieting.
  • Instead of designing a one-month goal with a one-month prize, each person sets a goal for each week, with one raffle entry per successful week. That way, if you get off track in week 2, you still have motivation to get back on track for weeks 3 and 4. Plus, the shorter cycle for positive feedback and milestone achievement seemed smart.
  • We needed to recruit at least 4 people to the group to make the final prize seem, well, prize-worthy.

It’s a variation on stickK.com, a behavioral economics-inspired web platform where you make a “commitment contract,” recruit a “referee,” and set your “financial stakes.” But, to me, something was always weird about the unidirectionality of this model. If I’m the person who wants to achieve a goal, I have to get others to agree to support me and hold me accountable. What do the supporters and referees get out of this?

With the DataDana variation, the challenge, support, and accountability flows in all directions. It’s multiple people asking each other. Plus, my variation has the added conceit of the gamble – a chance at multiplying your financial stakes. Yes, most participants will lose their money. But $10 is low enough that it won’t be missed, practically speaking; and $50 is high enough that it feels like a prize. If I win, I’m treating myself and one lucky dining companion to drinks and cheese at my local supermarket’s on-site bar. (One night of rosé and manchego won’t unravel all that hard work. Right?)

We are currently in Week 4 (of 4) in the Bod-havioral Economics experiment. After Sunday? I’ll update you dataheads with the results and some bonus analytics.