I'll Bet You $20: The Research Behind Diet Bets

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

I just put $20 down on a bet that I will lose 4% of my body weight (around 6lbs) in four week. I'm participating in this Diet Bet hosted by Erica House. Diet Bet claims a 90% success rate, which got me to thinking about why it works so well. Let's explore the research and psychology behind diet bets briefly, shall we?

1. Monetary awards motivate dieters: As this article explores, financial incentives seem to be quite effective for weight loss goals. Competition that involves money seems to spur people to action--at least more action than they would perform if going it alone. It seems to work for participants on The Biggest Loser, doesn't it? Of course, the fame and high dollar amount attached to those winnings differ significantly from throwing $20 in a pot with a few coworkers. But that doesn't mean a few extra bucks in your pocket isn't effective.

2. But only in the short term: The long-term effects of diet bets are a bit discouraging though. Since bets are typically temporary, the motivation to continue the weight loss plan is temporary too. Studies have shown that the effects may not hold up long term. Even though people are successful at losing weight with diet bets, many people gain the weight right back once the bet is finished. The immediacy of money earned creates a stronger reaction than the long-term effects of healthier living. Once you're done with the bet, you must transition from external motivation back to intrinsic motivation unless you want to keep signing up for bet after bet. Or you need to find a way to change your "diet" mindset to a "lifestyle" mindset. Diet is temporary. Healthy living must become a complete lifestyle change.

I have an example of these concepts living right under the same roof with me. Hubster lost an impeccable amount of weight about a year ago with a Biggest Loser Challenge hosted by his employer. Hubster won not only the team component, but also the personal component, taking home well over $100. The weight stayed off for a few months until Hubster went back to his old ways of eating and not exercising. Now he's back to where he started. The monetary incentive was definitely effective in the short term, but without carrying those new habits into the future, the weight loss won't stick.

3. Use bets for habit formation: Speaking of habits--habits are generally said to be formed in 21 days (or 66 days by some). If you're really committed to working out five days a week and planning out meals for each week, you could make your newfound habits stick. According to Psychology Today, you should also incorporate triggers (keeping running shoes by your bed) and rewards (money, new magazine, etc.) into your new routine to make it habit-forming. However, if you're of the mindset that this "diet" is just temporary, you will likely have trouble once your bet is over. Diet bets are an amazing premise for healthy habit formation, but only if your intentions are set for the longer-term.

4. Peer encouragement can have a profound effect upon your results. When you're committing to something like a diet bet or a lifestyle change, consider making it public. Tell your Facebook friends, shout it out on Twitter, let your friends know at brunch and get your family in on it. Heck, why don't you just blog about it? The more people you tell, the more deeply entrenched you become in the healthy cycle. Peers are great for keeping you accountable. Participate in the friendly chatter on the betting sites. Find a few pals on your diet bet site and keep in touch after the bet is over. Research shows that the more you log on, the more successful you'll be at hitting your weight loss goals.

5. Positive vs negative reinforcement: Positive reinforcement seems to be the winner for creating long-term changes in behavior, although negative reinforcement is effective in the short-term. Diet Bet offers positive reinforcement for weight lost--a bigger dip in the money pool. However, on the betting site stikK.com, if you lose the bet, your money is given to an anti-charity (a democrat donating to the republican party, etc). Whichever form of reinforcement you choose, be sure it is something that really pushes you to make changes. If you're passionate enough about the outcome, you have more chances of succeeding.

6. Diet bets really keep you honest. On Diet Bet, for example, your entry must be officially verified by a live person. You take a picture of yourself in "airport" apparel (no shoes, belts, etc) and a picture of your scale reading with a password. You can't cheat yourself out of the results. And I think that is one of the reasons why participants' success rates are so high.

Ready to make a bet on your weight? Here are some betting websites to check out and get started:

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