Want Results? Try Punishing Yourself


Rebecca Greenfield

August 29, 2014

Self-motivation comes in a numbers of forms but masochism, on its face, seems like a dubious strategy. But what if various boundaries aren’t enough?

In those cases, when something absolutely has to get done, we have another, albeit extreme suggestion: Waste large sums of money.

“The science of loss aversion says that we hate losing $100 about twice as much as we like winning $100,” said Nick Crocker, behavior change expert and founder of the fitness app Sessions, which MyFitnessPal acquired in 2013.

“Loss aversion” is the theory that losing drives behaviors more than the thought of winning. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman demonstrated the power of this phenomenon using a coin toss. “In my classes, I say: ‘I’m going to toss a coin, and if it’s tails, you lose $10. How much would you have to gain on winning in order for this gamble to be acceptable to you?” he told the New York Times.

“People want more than $20 before it is acceptable,” he said.

Using that theory, Crocker, on a looming and unexciting deadline, gave a friend $250 in $50 increments. He told that friend if he didn’t see Crocker diligently working on his project between the hours of 8 a.m. and noon during a given day, he should burn up $50. That continued every day of the work week for six months.

“At the end of six months he gave me back $250,” said Crocker, who had successfully finished his project. The thought of setting his hard-earned money aflame motivated him to get the job done. He changed the incentives.

Crocker did that experiment three years ago, and doesn’t recommend it for most situations. Extreme behavior change doesn’t usually last. “If you really hate a habit so much that you have to apply that much fear to it, there’s probably a bigger problem than the lack of that habit,” he told Fast Company. At the time, Crocker worked at a job he didn’t like very much. “The real problem was that I was doing the wrong thing,” he added.

Of course, not everyone is lucky enough to thoroughly and completely enjoy work all the time. Sometimes we have to do things that suck, and during those dark hours, loss aversion might be the only way to make it through.

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