Paying people to exercise

I found this article on Yahoo! today. The basic idea is this: some companies are paying employees to diet and exercise—up to $500 per year.

One company admits to simply making up the $500 dollar per year figure because, “It just sounded right to us.” I am not a psychologist, but I have read a lot more on psychology than these companies. From what I have read, the perfect amount to offer employees is: $0 per year.

From what I have read, the problem is that the $500 is an extrinsic motivator, and extrinsic motivators actually decrease the amount of intrinsic motivation a person has. Dieting and exercise, in particular, are things that we want people to be intrinsically motivated to do; we do not want people to stop exercising and eating well when the program ends.

But that is exactly what psychology predicts will happens: once the $500 incentive is removed (or maybe even before then), people will actually be less likely to exercise and eat well because of these programs. We think that there are a couple of reasons for this:

  1. The financial incentive is a bribe that is used to control the employee’s behavior. Although it is given with the best of intentions, people do not like to have their autonomy infringed upon. They may (unconsciously) try to reclaim their autonomy at some point by doing the opposite of what the program intends.
  2. The employees may come to dislike eating well and exercising because they (unconsciously) come to view them as barriers in the way of the $500.

I applaud the companies for trying to help the employees, but my understanding is that this is an awful way to do it. I do not have great alternatives, although I might start by stocking vending machines/cafeterias/etc. with healthy food. Perhaps an education campaign could help. Perhaps a CEO/manager/whichever powerful people who came up with the financial incentives could instead start a walking program over the lunch hour and invite the employees to join them.

Since this is an education/mathematics weblog, I will end by saying: we should think twice before we bribe our students (with extra credit, free time, or grades) for the same reasons.

(At some point, I will start listing my references to this stuff, but I am lazy/busy today. And, as always, I welcome psychologists to correct my interpretation of the research—Pam?)


4 Responses to “Paying people to exercise”

  1. Aaron Says:

    You could also look at the cash incentives as a way to begin educating people about the costs of health care.

    Regarding cash incentives for student performance, this was an interesting article:,8599,1978589-1,00.html

  2. Erica Says:

    I had the exact same reaction to this story when I heard it as a brief blurb on the news today. They didn’t mention the reasons you (and I) cited, but they did note skepticism about these kinds of programs on account of people being more motivated when their own money rather than someone else’s is at stake. (By this, I assume they mean that there’s a psychological difference between money that you HAVE in your hand already that you pay out– e.g. for Weight Watchers or a gym membership– rather than money that you might GET as a reward.) I suspect that you’ll agree with me that that’s still not the right reason to think that these programs won’t work.

  3. bretbenesh Says:

    @Aaron: That is a great article, Aaron. Thanks for sending it. Here are my thoughts:

    1. Bless Roland Fryer’s heart for actually doing research on what works. I am happy people like him are out there verifying rather than just speculating. That being said…
    2. I am curious about the standardized tests used to measure achievement. How good are they?
    3. My main concern with this study is that it was only a short-term study (although it was long than most). What happens to these kids in 5 years? Are they still going to be interested in reading when they are not paid for it? The literature says “no.” If they are as interested in reading, then—by all means—we should pay them. If not, though, which is more important—doing well on a standardized test in the 2nd grade or enjoying reading?

    Fryer might respond to the last question with, “The students do not enjoy reading now, so where is the harm?” I do not have an answer for that, except that these financial incentives do absolutely nothing to address why they are not interested in reading right now. It seems to me—again, assuming that the psychology literature is correct—that Fryer’s program is, at best, a band-aid until we can fix the rest of the educational system. But I will grant that the band-aid might be necessary for a little bit.

  4. bretbenesh Says:

    @Erica: I agree with you. In fact, when you say that there is a difference between someone paying for a gym membership and someone being paid to lose weight, the difference between these two situations seems to be “autonomy.”

    When someone pays for a gym membership, he has committed his money by choice. If he skips going to the gym, he is letting himself down. The important thing to me, though, is that this is all his choice—he is in control of everything here.

    But when someone else is being paid to lose weight, the company is trying to manipulate her to change her behavior. She is not completely in control, since the company is trying to control her actions (again, the company has the best of intentions, but it is still a control issue).

    So I do agree, and I appreciate you making me think about this distinction more carefully.

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