Turning Desires into Actions

Sep 10

Many people desire to be on time, to lose weight, to study hard, to spend more time with family, or to read more books. Rationally, desire should lead to action. But it’s not that simple.

A group of Yale economists has addressed this seemingly simple yet immensely complex phenomenon through online “commitment contracts” on The commitment contract concept is based on two principles of behavioral economics: (1) people don’t always do what they claim they want to do, and (2): incentives get people to do things.

On, individuals can register their personal goals and set up “punishments” for themselves if they don’t reach those goals.  People can contractually set aside money that they will lose if their goals are not met. Even stronger of an incentive, users can have the money set aside as punishment go to an “anti-charity,” or a cause that they despise—like a political party that they disagree with—if they don’t meet their goals. For people who would rather be punished by humiliation, they can choose to have their failures sent over email to everyone in their contact lists. is doing well in helping people achieve their goals. For people who use the website to set and achieve weight loss goals, for example, there is a reported 85%-90% achievement rate. is a great example of a program where social marketing and behavioral science theory merge and are put into successful practice:

Loss Aversion. recognizes that the threat of losing money is much more powerful in motivating people to take action than the incentive of gaining money.

Stages of Change. takes a consumer through the first four stages of change with simple clicks of a mouse: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, and action. The fifth stage of change—maintenance—is up to the consumer.

Theory of Reasoned Action. recognizes that attitudes and intentions can lead to behavior change.  Therefore, the website promotes self-efficacy, and consumers obtain a solid understanding of what will or will not happen if their goals are achieved.

Social Learning Theory. has a portion of their home page devoted to “Who’s StickK-ing?” People on the fence about signing up can learn from seeing others define and achieve their goals, making them more likely to engage in similar actions.

So, do we as human beings need a third party to help us define and meet our goals? I don’t think so, but I do think it can help. What are your thoughts?

This entry was posted on Monday, September 10th, 2012 at 10:04 am and is filed under Behavior Change, Behavioral Economics, Social Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

3 Responses to “ Turning Desires into Actions”

  1. Robert Smith says:

    Very useful article, great proof that are wonderfully adept at SEO / back linking. Nice strategy OPR ; )

  2. @RobertSmith, so cynical! 🙂

    Speaking of cynical, I’m just here to talk up Beeminder. (The article is also really solid though; I’m totally on board with all those principles of behavior change!)

    So, yeah, Beeminder! It’s like for data nerds. It’s so great!

    Danny of Beeminder

  3. Michaela Thayer says:

    @Daniel Reeves, interesting! I love Beeminder’s focus on charting achievement in meeting goals and making progress visual. Opower uses consumer-facing charts to document energy usage in a somewhat similar manner, aiding people in making better decisions for the environment and for their pocketbooks. It’s very successful.

    Thanks for sharing!