Intrinsic Motivation – Money as a Motivator for Weight Loss

Intrinsic Motivation and Weight Loss

Here is a task for you:  Go to Wal-Mart and look around.   America. Is. Fat.  In fact, America is only getting fatter.  There are, of course, many reasons for this and you’ve heard them all before so we shall spare you that story.  As America gets fatter, nighttime television is consumed by the latest and greatest weight loss schemes.  They do not work of course, which is (perhaps) one of the reasons the industry continues to grow. Why do weight-loss programs and tools fail to work? What role does intrinsic motivation play?

Danny from the Biggest Loser lost an incredible 239 pounds

The reality is that obesity is costing America a fortune while at the same time Washington debates healthcare reform.  An easy solution to both the obesity and health-care problem would be to lose weight. Simple as it sounds, most know that losing weight is far from it.  But why?  As you might imagine, psychologists are on the front lines in trying to find out why.   Recently the winner of a popular reality show lost 239 pounds in less than a year.  Turns out he also won $250,000.  As you might expect, it seems money is one of the best motivators to for weight loss.

Who Are They

Kevin G. Volpp, MD, PhD; Leslie K. John, MS; Andrea B. Troxel, ScD; Laurie Norton, MA; Jennifer Fassbender, MS; George Loewenstein, PhD

What They Did

Volpp et. al. gathered 57 overweight (though otherwise healthy) individuals between the ages of 30 and 70 years old.  The participants were then randomly placed in one of three different groups.  The first group was placed in a lottery system where those who met or exceeded weight-loss goals would have a chance at winning money.  The second group was part of a “deposit-contract arrangement” in which they pooled together their own money.  The money in this group was then split up among the top weight losers within the group.  The final group was given no cash incentive to lose weight.
The groups were all given 16 weeks to lose weight with a goal of losing one pound per week.

What They Found

Volp et al. discovered that those individuals who were given a cash incentive to lose weight performed significantly better than those given no incentive other than their good health.  By the numbers:  53% of the “lotto” group met or exceeded the 16 pound weight-loss goal, 47% of the deposit-contract group met or exceeded the 16 pound goal, and only 11% of the group with no cash incentive met or exceeded the 16 pound goal.  A follow up study revealed that not only did the weight loss end as soon as the cash incentives did for most of the participants, but the weight actually begin to come back.

What it Means

Unfortunately it looks like a random group of American’s isn’t very intrinsically motivated to be healthy.  In fact, by and large it required cold hard cash for individuals to lose weight. Sadly, once that extrinsic incentive was taken away, so was the motivation to lose weight.  What’s scary is that other findings about financial based incentives may mean that those who once lost weight as a result of a cash incentive, may now have even less motivation to be healthier on their own accord.

So is money the answer to a healthier America?  Early indications suggest not, at least not for the long term.  There is some hope, however, in that it is possible to motivate otherwise unmotivated people to do something with a little bit of money.  But for those of us who work every day, this isn’t news at all.  Volpp et. al. do wonder if a longer-term incentive program would begin to actually change the way the participants think by suggesting that a 12-18 month program would result in such drastic weight loss that the extrinsic motivation of cash would begin subside to an intrinsic desire to remain healthy.  Perhaps we should follow up with Danny in a few months to see how he’s doing…

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation can be thought of as the internal desire to accomplish something for the sake of accomplishing it.  Intrinsically motivated tasks are still accomplished due to a reward but the reward exists within the task itself.  An example is listening to a song because an individual likes how the song sounds.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation refers to “external” motivation to drive us to finishing something.  With extrinsically motivated tasks, the desire to complete the task has less to do with the rewards within the task itself and more to do with the rewards that come as a result of the completion of the task.  For example, you go to work to get paid. The work is the task, the motivation is the money you get from the job (this is, of course, unless you love your work).

Further Reading

Financial Incentive–Based Approaches for Weight Loss (link to study)