Friday, February 7, 2014

Pact - Healthy Living Made Appealing

It’s early February, so by now our communal New Year’s resolution to “exercise and eat right” is fresh in its grave. And it will likely remain there for months, until the pressure of swimsuit season or a good friend’s wedding digs it out again. For most of us, that nagging goal will remain buried under the weight of the inexhaustible busyness that so often characterizes the American lifestyle. But recent Harvard graduates Yifan Zhang and Geoff Oberhofer have proposed a solution to our fast-paced, productivity-oriented, no-time-to-be-healthy routine. And it’s one that appeals to our other steadfast American value: financial incentives.

Their program, dubbed “Pact,” is a system by which the hopefuls in pursuit of a healthier lifestyle can commit to real fitness goals … and then be held accountable to them. Because they are not only committing to go to the gym once a day or to eat more vegetables, the people who join Pact are also promising to give up money each time they slack off. And for those who reach their goals? Financial payoffs are in order. As their website succinctly explains, you can “Earn cash for living healthy, paid by members who don’t.”

Yes, there are a thousand possible flaws. My initial reaction was to question its viability as a business model (How do you keep people from lying about fulfilling their commitments? How do you ensure that the number of members that are not meeting their fitness goals will provide enough financial compensation for those who do keep their commitments? Won’t the type of people who need external incentive to work out just quit the program after they lose $20?).

But even with all those questions in mind, I still find Pact a strikingly insightful development. Primarily because my gut reaction is “I would work out if someone paid me to.” Perhaps my more virtuous, driven peers would frown upon my lack of self-motivation. But a quick survey of Pact’s website tells me I’m not the only one who feels this way. Monetary incentives (and disincentives) are powerful tools. It’s no surprise that far-off realities such as heart disease and hypertension do little to motivate the sedentary to get moving today. Rather, it’s the moment-by-moment rewards and punishments that get the message across, especially when they dip into our wallet.  

And that’s what is so creative about this project. There is a well-established problem, and Pact provides a new, paradigm-shifting solution. The typical model is “I need to lose weight. I will pay for a gym membership/personal trainer/workout equipment to help me become healthier.” But Zhang and Oberhofer offer a fundamental modification to our system. Rather than paying to get healthy, they propose that you should only pay when you fail to achieve your fitness goals. And you should be rewarded for your healthy behaviors. It’s the gold star and time out chair of our childhood, but this time we sign up for it.

In that sense, Pact is certainly not novel: the concept of behavior modification by punishment and reward is well-documented.  It is the pairing of that principle with the nation-wide “every-year New Year’s resolution” that makes it original. Zhang and Oberhofer happened upon what some researchers refer to as “conceptual combination.” In a behavioral economics class that looked at the effects of loss aversion on people’s conduct, Zhang realized the importance of the fact that loss motivates people twice as much as gains. And Oberhofer was a self-identified “gym rat” at the time. Thus, Pact was born. They made the connection between of an ever-present reality (many people want to live healthier lifestyles), the technology of our everyday lives (apps), and an underlying social-behavioral principle (losing money motivates people). Their program offered the perfect solution to all those who mourn their unused gym memberships: the real-time motivation we need to form the lasting habits we want. 

At Pact’s founding, Zhang and Oberhofer had the goal of signing up 1,000 users in the first month. When they reached 20,000 users within 2 weeks of start-up, it became obvious that Pact offered an enticing solution to a common problem. Currently, it boasts a 92% success rate for users. Although it has faced mixed reviews and various criticisms, Pact has adapted along the way, and continues to grow. Whatever it might say about our values or motivations as a society, Pact works. 


  1. I actually joined Pact after reading your post on it! I've been doing a 5k training plan and I eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, so I figured "Why not?" I think it's a pretty cool idea, and I'm sure it works for a lot of people. It seems like the threat of paying (at least for a poor college student like me) is probably a lot more effective even than the $1 or $2 that you get a week from eating healthily or exercising. Of course, it seems like it might be a poor commentary on the average person's self-motivation if the only reason that they go to the gym is the threat of paying money if they don't go. I guess it just depends on whether you think it matters what the motivation for a good action is, or whether it's good just because it has a good outcome. Either way, hopefully this helps people get healthier, even if it's only for the money!

  2. As ashamed as I am to admit this, I qualify in the group whose New Year’s resolution is to “exercise and eat healthy,” and as many others I fail to meet those resolutions every year. There is always something that pulls me right back to my unhealthy eating habits. One year I was so determine to eat healthy that I added a nutrition class to my school schedule. Unfortunately, my health conscious meals lasted about as long as the class did, one semester; then it was back to the on the go, pre-packaged food that is the life of many college students.
    For that reason, I find this program very appealing. After that, I am currently enrolled in a biochemistry class in which we are learning about diabetes, and more specifically type 2 diabetes. For those of you do not know, this is the type of diabetes where excess fat in the body masks, or desensitizes, the receptors that trigger insulin.
    More relevant to this article is that the only way to prevent type 2 diabetes is by changing one’s lifestyle; working out and eating healthy. Since type 2 diabetes is on the rise in America, I do not see the harm in letting this program, “Pact,” run its course.
    Also, we live in a world where people crave instant gratification so that added incentive of money satisfies people’s need for instant satisfaction whereas the actual diet and exercise portion of the program satisfies long-term goals. All in all, I would not be opposed to trying this program!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.