Weight Loss and Incentives

Ted Frank reports on his 60k weight-loss bet with Ray Lehmann:

In late 2008, Ray Lehmann and I made an audacious bet: we would put up $60,000 that we would lose 60 pounds in nine months, and pay each other $1,000 for each pound the other lost. 

…I lost 32 pounds, Ray lost 41, and we were on pace to lose 60 each. StickK.com was offering to make us their official spokespeople.

Then things fell apart. We couldn't negotiate an appropriate contract with StickK, which wanted exclusive rights to our story without any compensation. The delay caused us to stop writing about the diet while we had false dreams of fame and glory from StickK promotion, and then we both got distracted with starting new jobs and the disappointment of shattered expectations when StickK stopped returning our calls.

Alex Tabarrok correctly predicted that the danger of the two-person bet was that we would collude not to enforce it.

And, indeed that was what happened. We started gaining weight, and started pushing back the goal-line for the end of the bet…neither of us held the other's feet to the fire….

Professor Tabarrok's solution was to create a third-party Leviathan to enforce the bet: he facetiously offered to pay us $500 to be the collector [not facetious, Ted!, AT]. Of course, that was a negative-expectation transaction for each of us, unless we thought we had a 90%+ chance of succeeding…Even the threat of public humiliation on Marginal Revolution wasn't enough to stop us from colluding.

But Ted isn't giving up.  He is looking for other people to take the bet to reduce the possibility of collusion or he would like to auction off leviathan rights.

Are there three other people out there willing to wager that they can lose 50 pounds over a reasonable amount of time? (Forty? Sixty?) Who's in, and under what conditions?

…In the alternative, how much is someone willing to pay to be Leviathan and have the opportunity to collect tens of thousands of dollars from me or Ray for failing to lose weight? I suppose I could put Leviathan rights up on eBay; if Marginal Revolution and a few other blogs publicized it, we could reach a good solid equilibrium price. What do people think?

I see this is as a good case study in the difficult of setting up an appropriate incentive scheme and also the difficulty of losing weight. When I put on my Tyler hat, however, I have to wonder whether all this effort put into clever incentive schemes is not a way of avoiding the real issues.  "Less blogging, more jogging," my friends.

What Ted and Ray are trying to do is to sail between Scylla and Charybdis by offsetting the pull of food with the pull of lost money. Carrot cake versus stick. But in this tug of war, how long will the balance last? How permanent will the weight loss be?

The real trick in weight loss, as in other areas of life, is to change wants not oppose them. Unfortunately, Seth Roberts nothwithstanding, this is a struggle with no easy solutions.

Nevertheless, I have proudly helped others to lose weight with unusual incentives, and my $500 bid for leviathan rights over Ted and Ray still stands. Good luck guys.


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