I’ve always had a problem the show The Biggest Loser. I just never liked the title. I thought it was demeaning towards obese people. Yet it was my family (who are regular watchers) that pointed out how empowering the fitness program is for the contestants on the show and the life changes it produces for them – and possibly by extension the viewers watching. Well, I have to admit that I am now in agreement with them – even though I still don’t like the title. Here’s why.
Humans hate to lose. We hate to be a loser. Research has shown that we will go out of our way to avoid losing something. The psychological phenomenon of “loss aversion” illustrates that a loss has two times the emotional impact that a gain of the same value has. This is tied to “risk aversion” in the sense that we will go out of our way to avoid a loss even if the payoff from risking the loss is big.
Now, apply this to weight management. Why would anyone want to lose weight? The goal of dieting to lose weight is at direct odds with our tendency for loss aversion. Even if all that fat is something we don’t want, losing it has a bigger emotional impact than the reward of having lost it. If that doesn’t make sense to you then re-read the paragraph above that starts with “humans hate to lose”.
So if the reward of being fit doesn’t outweigh the negative emotion of loss (of all that fat), then the logical solution is to find a bigger negative emotion to trump the aversion of losing fat. A bigger negative emotion – how about embarrassment? Yale Law School professors Ian Ayres and Barry Nalebuff tried just such a thing for a segment of ABC’s Primetime. They took photographs of five volunteers in bikinis then told them that they needed to lose 15 pounds in two months. If they didn’t they were going to reveal the bikini photos on national television and on the Web. What happened? They all lost the weight. The fear of loosing their reputation, prestige or honor was greater than their loss of fat. Sometimes we try this on our own when we say “I don’t want to feel embarrassed in my bathing suit this summer so I’ll loose 15 pounds in two months”. But there are too many outs. If we fail, we can just buy a different suit, or just go to the beach in our clothes. We need some means to hold us accountable, other than ourselves.
Programs like Weight Watchers can be helpful for some, but again, the focus is on weight loss. We need the focus to be on fitness with failure tied to a bigger emotional loss. That’s the idea behind the website stikk.com where you take a contract out on yourself and stake something of value that you risk loosing if you fail to meet your goal. Let’s say you set a goal of loosing 20 pounds in 20 weeks, or 1 pound a week. Then you stake some money, let’s say $10 per week. If you fail to loose the 1 pound, stikk charges your credit card for the $10 and gives it to someone you designate or a favorite charity or (and I like this one) an anti-charity!
An anti-charity is an organization that you can’t stand. So the stakes are even higher – your $10 per week might be going to that organization that makes you cringe at the very mention of its name. Now we’re talking real loss as the fat melts away and you achieve the reward of greater fitness and a trim body. There is some research however, that suggests that money isn’t always the best motivator in weight loss. That’s why what ever you stake on your progress must have the potential to be big – for you.
Okay, I’m not trying to promote the stikk.com website, but what I am trying to illustrate is that losing is contrary to our human nature. So if you want to change your body or any aspect of yourself, a twist on the old adage rings true – if there’s no risk of pain, there’s likely to be no gain. I think this is also one of the factors that makes the show The Biggest Loser worthwhile. In that show it’s not just about winning the grand prize, it’s also about being honorable in losing.