Monday, November 8, 2010

carrots and sticks and bears, oh my!

I've been reading an interesting book about motivation and sticking to your commitments called Carrots and Sticks, written by a Yale professor of economics. The book proposes two different approaches to goal-reaching; being rewarded for reaching milestones along your journey, and being punished for not doing so.

(Hence, carrots and sticks.)

The interesting thing, though, is that Ian Ayres (the author) has built a website,, that allows people to put up a certain amount of their own money as a bet against their failure. For example, Ayers himself has been striving to keep his weight under 180 pounds. To aid in this, he has agreed that can take the $500 he has put at risk every week if he goes over 180. Even more compellingly, he has agreed that can send that money to a cause he does not support.

How does the website know that he's gone over 180 pounds? Well, he tells them. Part of Ayres' commitment is his willingness to participate in the contract (and report honestly) in the first place. Because are you really going to bet $500 that you'll stop a behavior you kindasortakinda want to stop? I doubt it. encourages users to identify an external arbiter to oversee these contracts -- someone like a coach, for example -- to make sure the person is reporting honestly, and really making use of the system.

Because once someone lies about one commitment, the whole thing is shot.

I find this particular type of motivation both exciting and terrifying. Putting $500 of my own money at risk would ensure that any undesired behavior would cease to happen -- especially if that money was going to, say, the NRA, the Tea Party, or Sarah Palin's campaign fund -- and yet, I don't know if I could forgive myself if an emergency happened and I couldn't stick to my commitment. Not only would I be letting myself down, I'd be out $500, and would probably have to drum up another $500 to donate to positive causes to balance out the harm I've done.

And that's what I like about using money as a motivator; it brings the issue into the front of my consciousness. There are a number of things I want to do -- like blogging regularly -- that, if I lost $500 every time I didn't do them would happen more often. At the same time, I'm not sure I'd want to live with the stress of that kind of money hanging over me.

A client of mine is using this approach -- not through the website, but through a verbal agreement with me -- and I'm amazed to see the amount of work he's doing. Will this last longer than one week? I'm not sure. But it definitely is motivating him to make absolutely sure the desired behavior happens seven days in a row.

Who knew Sarah Palin could be so useful?


  1. That is SOOOOO interesting, Kate! I took an online class once where the 'carrot on a stick' was that they'd reimburse me $500 of the course's price if I completed it by a certain date--and it was interesting to see how fast I worked to finish the course in order to get the money back. In talking to the guy that created it, apparently, it was a method that worked well with the majority of the folks who took the course.

    As far as having to PAY each time I don't stick to my agreements...I'm going to mull over that one. It's definitely a new way to put value on a goal--and I'm thinking it might be the kind of incentive (or kick in the butt) I need! Thank you so much for posting about this!!!!!

  2. I have it on good authority that it's lasted more than one week ;)