Time-inconsistent preferences or not, this will help you lose weight

I am [...] fat. But now my wife, who is desperate, for some reason, to keep me around for a very long time, is turning the economics of obesity on its head, agreeing to provide me financial incentives to finally drop the pounds. It is a peculiar strategy, but it's not without merit: Economists have recently shown that if you pay people enough money, they will lose significant weight.

I thought of that the other day when I was talking to Barry Nalebuff, a professor at Yale University and one the country's top game-theory economists. He has studied weight-loss incentives extensively. When I told him what my wife was paying me, he said: "It's not going to work. It's not big enough. Not even close." [...] he suggested I enter into a contract in which I agree to pay him if I don't drop some pounds. "As much as people don't like to lose money, what they really don't like to lose is their own money," he said.

In fact, some of his Yale colleagues are in the final stages of launching a business based on this very concept. They have started a company called stickK.com that will allow people to take out a contract on themselves. They pick a price. If they don't lose a certain amount of weight, they lose the money, either to a charity, friends or family. Ian Ayres, one of the company's founders, said he hopes the Web site makes money by selling advertisements and forming corporate partnerships.

"The basic idea is to let economic incentives have a chance," he said. "It's been very hard to produce successful results through traditional weight-loss methods."

Ayres took out a contract on himself with another of the company's founders. He needed to get down to 185 pounds, losing at least a pound a week or forfeiting $500 for each week he failed. Sure enough, he dropped below 185 pounds. Now if his weight goes above 185 pounds, a penalty kicks in. He has avoided more than $21,000 in potential penalties. "It's been a free way to lose weight," Ayres said.

He added, "Thousands of studies have shown that people work harder to avoid losses than to gain a similar amount."

From the Washington Post, via Greg Mankiw.


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