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by Nicole Witham


I am not much of a gambler – a one or two-dollar scratch ticket is my max. I would rather spend my money on a coffee or, to be honest, a cookie than a card game or a slot machine. But what if consistently choosing to eat the cookie would end up costing me $100 later on? That is to say, what if I bet $100 that I could lose a certain amount of weight in a month and if I didn’t make my goal, my money would go to someone else? This is the idea behind incentivizing weight loss and the business model of websites such as DietBet and HealthyWage.
On these sites, players bet money that they will lose weight over a designated period of time, introducing a twist on the concept of accountability. DietBet, HealthyWage and other similar sites have slightly different rules: you can simply make your money back if you meet your goal (and forfeit the money if you don’t); you could both earn your money back and make more than you initially bet; or you can pledge your forfeited money to an organization you do not support. This latter spin makes the sting of missing your goal all the more painful. Weight loss betting is becoming popular. And, if you tally up the total jackpot from each of the different betting sites, lucrative for “losers”.

Randomized trials demonstrate that incentivizing weight loss leads to more pounds lost than trying to lose weight without money on the line, at least in the short-term. Insights from behavioral economics, the study of how psychology and sociology influence our economic decisions, offer explanations as to why weight loss bets are successful. Most importantly, people hate to lose what they already have – in the case of a weight loss bet, their own money. This is called loss aversion. The desire to hold on to hard-earned cash rivals another concept behavioral economists study, immediate gratification (or future discounting). People are inclined to value immediate rewards higher than delayed gratification. Immediate gratification leads individuals to consume highly palatable, energy-dense foods, rather than choosing the more nutritious but perhaps less tasty options that will lead to better future health.

These two inherent traits are at odds with one another in a weight loss bet. Successful betting relies on the fact that the player fears losing his or her money more than he or she wants to eat unhealthy foods or skip exercising (meaning I would have to challenge my natural cookie-buying inclinations if I participated in a weight loss bet).

While the motivation to save, or even make money, leads to weight loss in the short-term, the ability of players to keep weight off in the long-term is limited. Skeptics of weight loss betting, or any fad weight loss program in general, propose that sustained weight loss requires lifelong behavioral modifications that a short-term bet might inspire but cannot ultimately guarantee. Additionally, public health professionals emphasize that weight loss bets may work on an individual-level for some people, but attention and policies need to be directed largely at fixing the environment that promotes obesity to inspire change on a population-level. To win big, we need to find the special sauce that turns the short-term success of weight loss betting into a long-lasting payoff.

 


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