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Are You Ready to Bet Against Your Smartphone?

A number of new apps don’t just track behavior but aim to change it, sometimes with cash incentives.
September 4, 2012

How’s your New Year’s resolution coming? Didn’t think anyone would ask about that in September, did you? By this time of year, the majority of those who made resolutions have failed, one more reminder of how bad we are at sticking to our self-improvement goals.

Yet, despite Americans’ propensity to down cheeseburgers and sodas, buy unnecessary stuff, and avoid exercise at all costs, I’m optimistic about our ability to make better decisions, thanks to a new class of motivational apps. Think of them as the quantified self plus a kick in the ass.

The latest example of this trend came recently when GymPact, the exercise incentives app, announced its integration with the mobile exercise tracker RunKeeper. GymPact lets you commit money against your fitness goal. Work out as many times in the week as you said you would and you get it back, plus some. Fail to meet your goal and you lose the cash. As of this week, the app works for running and walking instead of just checking in at the gym.

I’ve called apps like this the Good Behavior Layer; The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal has dubbed it the trend the Programmable Self. GymPact is the beginning of something huge, a class of apps that go beyond simply tracking behavior to help alter it. We’re on the verge of having smartphones that can warn us before we overeat and mobile wallets (or even glasses) that limit foolish purchases. And financial incentives are just one piece of the puzzle.

There are a whole bunch of creative motivational possibilities waiting to be explored. We’ve already seen scales that tweet your weight, but imagine an app that automatically posted to your Facebook feed about your late night junk food binge, or even changed your profile picture to something terrible looking any time you ordered fast food. Would that work as a motivator?

We don’t know, and that’s part of why the good behavior layer is so enticing. We do know that human motivation is a diverse phenomenon. What remains to be worked out is how much different levers—financial, social, moral—matter. The data from apps like GymPact will improve our understanding of how to make better choices.

If the idea of a mobile app nudging you to behave differently sounds creepy, consider that it already occurs. You’re constantly being prodded to click ads or share more personal information; the only difference here is that the apps I’m talking about are designed to help you achieve goals you set.

One of the things I like best about motivation apps is that they offer an opportunity to at least partially bypass an ugly political debate. In 2008, economist Richard Thaler and law professor Cass Sunstein published a book called Nudge, providing evidence that small changes to context can alter our decision-making, and arguing that the government ought to get involved in helping to “nudge” us toward things like saving for retirement.

The book helped make Sunstein, who served for a time as Obama’s regulatory czar, a target of Glenn Beck. And the general “nudge” concept—called libertarian paternalism—remains controversial in some quarters.

Now, I’m unabashedly a fan of libertarian paternalism. But I’m even more of a fan of dodging the debate altogether with the help of the right technology. Not every bad choice can be changed by a mobile app, but considering how many of the country’s major problems—obesity, debt, dropout rates—revolve around willpower, I can’t help but root for the good behavior layer to make a dent.

In short, we’re fat, lazy, and in debt. And left to our own devices we’re likely to stay that way. But the solution—at least part of it—may be right in our pockets.

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