Do Incentives Make You Fat?

bigstock-A-hungry-man-making-the-hard-c-42760231You receive an invitation from your HR department to win a mini-iPad if you lose weight. You think: What do I have to lose except some weight? What do I have to gain except health and a mini-iPad?

You may need to think again.

It seems that using these enticing incentives to motivate yourself results in a suboptimal motivational outlook that ultimately leaves you without the energy to follow through on your weight loss plans—especially if you are a man.

We now have significant proof that financial motivation does not sustain changes in personal health behaviors—and, in fact, may undermine them over time. What’s more, financial motivation negatively affects men’s efforts over time more than women’s. Rewards may help you initiate new and healthy behaviors, but they fail miserably in helping you maintain your progress. Shortly after the incentive is gone, you revert back to your old ways.*

So why do over 70 percent of wellness programs in the U.S. use financial incentives to encourage healthy behavior changes? Here are three potential reasons:

  • If you are not pressured into losing weight, but invited to participate in a weight-loss program that offers small financial incentives, there is a likelihood you will lose weight—at least initially. But studies reporting weight loss success were conducted only during the period of the contest. They didn’t track maintenance. But recent studies show that just twelve weeks after the program’s incentives end, most or all of the weight is regained.
  • Financial incentives are easy (if expensive).
  • We haven’t understood until recently the true nature of motivation or how to effectively use the latest science of motivation to help people shift to an optimal motivational outlook that sustains effort and results over time.

It turns out that rewards and incentives are the fast-food of motivation—they give you a kick and then send your energy plummeting. To initiate and maintain a healthy lifestyle, you need the equivalent of motivational health food. Satisfying your basic psychological needs for A-R-C (Autonomy, Relatedness, and Competence) is more likely to help you achieve your goals and feel good enough about the results to maintain them.

Great! But how do you shift from a suboptimal motivational outlook—and the ease and enticement of motivational fast food—to an optimal motivational outlook where you flourish by satisfying your healthy psychological needs? Part of the answer lies in learning the skill of Optimal Motivation. Here are three ways to start:

  1. Notice when you use phrases with the words have to in them:  I have to lose weight. I have to eat healthy. I have to have a salad instead of fries. I have to is a subtle but significant sign that you are feeling a loss of freedom. Your need for choice—your perception of Autonomy—is being undermined. When you have to do what the diet demands, the thing you crave is autonomy. Ironically, the way you exercise your autonomy is by eating the fast food you had restricted yourself from eating. The act of banning the bad stuff makes you want it even more!
  2. Realize that you love yourself and your health more than you love the fast food. This is the power of Relatedness. In this case, you can consider fast food either literally or symbolically (winning the mini-iPad).
  3. Recognize the sense of positive well-being that comes each time you make a choice to do the best thing for your health. This positive feeling comes from your mastery over the situation—experiencing your Competence.

So the next time you are invited to join a program, lose weight, and win a mini-iPad, go ahead and take up the offer—but don’t do it for the iPad. Instead, do it for deeper values and the sake of satisfying your Autonomy, Relatedness, and Competence. The iPad is no longer the carrot, but simply a symbol of your flourishing.

What do you have to lose? Weight. What do you have to gain? Health and a positive sense of well-being. Oh, and that mini-iPad!


* Moller, McFadden, Hedeker, and Spring, “Financial Motivation Undermines Maintenance in an Intensive Diet and Activity Intervention,” Journal of Obesity, Volume 2012, Article ID 740519.

Deci and Ryan, “The ‘What’ and ‘Why’ of Goal Pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior,” Psychological Inquiry (2000) Vol. 11, No. 4, pp 227-268.

About the author:

Susan Fowler is one of the principal authors—together  with David Facer and Drea Zigarmi—of The Ken Blanchard Companies’ new Optimal Motivation process and workshop.  Their posts appear on the first and third Monday of each month.

7 thoughts on “Do Incentives Make You Fat?

  1. Being mindful, cultivating our self- awareness, takes practice but the motivational rewards are much more money, and last longer too.

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Counterintuitive, but exactly what I see in my practice. It doesn’t matter where the bribe is coming from: well meaning parents, a spouse, a friend, neighbor or the workplace–any externalized motivation is bound to be short lived for most people. I use motivational interviewing techniques in my practice. Clients who get stuck in ambivalence find a more effective approach to improving their metabolic health when the focus shifts to readiness, willingness and ability. In addition, we set aside the abysmal metric of weight–it is a lousy surrogate for health status. All corporate wellness programs would do well to measure true biomarkers of health.

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