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A New Way to Lose Weight and Keep it Off

Put your money at risk.

People do better at meeting their goals if they know that bad consequences are connected to failure. As economists put it, we’re “risk averse.” But the risks need to be palpable and reliable.

Although Jack knew all about the potential bad health consequences of obesity—crumbling knees, erectile dysfunction, diabetes--so far they hadn’t hit him personally and he kept yo-yoing, losing weight and regaining it.

One way to make the bad consequences loom before him was to set a deadline. So he committed himself to have bariatric surgery if he didn’t lose 50 pounds within a year. Since he really hated the idea of the surgery, this was a big motivating stick. So far, he’s lost 12 pounds in six weeks.

Two Yale economists, Dean Karlan and Ian Ayres, have battled their bulges using the risk aversion principle—with money at stake, rather than the threat of surgery. Karlan has agreed to pay Ayres $1,000 every week he gains weight. Ayres, the author of Carrots and Sticks: Unlock the Power of Incentives to Get Things Done, has agreed to pay Karlan $500 if he goes above the limit of 185 lbs.

For these two, this approach worked so well that they founded the website stickk, where anyone can define a goal and create incentives to make it happen. According to their data, if you appoint someone as your “referee” you potentially double your chances of success. Adding financial stakes--“skin in the game”--increases your chances of success by up to three times.

Separate research has supported the idea among smokers trying to quit. In this study, a control group was offered information and free nicotine patches. After six months, six percent of them had stopped smoking. Another group was offered a reward--$800 if they had stopped smoking six months later. Seventeen percent quit. The third group got both a stick and a reward: They had put down $150 of their own money. If they had quit smoking at six months, they got back their own money and also got a $650 bonus prize from their employer. If they were still smoking, they lost their $150. Fewer people agreed to this deal, but 52 percent succeeded. It just hurt too much to lose your own $150.

At Stickk, you can post text or images to a commitment journal to record your progress, and invite family and friends to get progress updates by email. You can designate a referee, financial stakes (at least $5.00 for each reporting period) and who will get your money if you fail. To up the pain level, you could choose an enemy as the recipient or a charity that you dislike. As the cofounders of Stickk put it, “Wouldn't it just kill you to hand over your hard-earned money to someone you can't stand? That's a pretty strong incentive to achieve your goal now isn't it?”

Try Stickk or if you want to test the risk-aversion approach using money on your own, here’s a plan:

Give $150 to a friend and instruct her to put it in a saving account. If you don’t lose 15 pounds in 15 weeks, she must give it to the boy who has been bullying your son (supply the address), the boss who kept insulting you or the ex-husband who didn’t send his child support checks. If you do lose the weight, tell her to keep the money in the account and if you gain 10 pounds back at any point, that same $150 goes to your enemy, with interest.

A tip: People who are triggered to overeat by emotional cues are most likely to regain lost weight, some research shows. Watching the account grow could motivate you to dial back your snacking before you regain.

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