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Changing habits is hard. But what if there was a way to dramatically improve your odds of quitting even your worst habits? What if this method was shown to be over 8 times more effective than traditional methods at helping people quit a stubborn addiction like smoking? Would you try it?
The technique involves a wager. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that when people put money down, they were much more likely to accomplish their goals. In this case, people who risked $150 of their own money to win a $650 bonus prize were dramatically more likely to quit smoking than those who used traditional smoking cessation methods. Surprisingly, this group also beat out those who were offered an $800 reward with no deposit for staying smoke-free.
Less Attractive But More Effective
This technique clearly isn’t for everyone. In fact, when I think about how I could apply this method to my own life, I cringe. There is irony in the fact that I’m scared to use a method I know to be so effective.
At least I know I’m not alone. Very few people in the smoking cessation study mentioned above agreed to put down the $150 deposit. As Nudge author Cass Sunstein wrote, “Only 13.7% of the participants assigned to the deposit program chose to enroll in it, whereas 90.0% of those assigned to the reward program chose to enroll.”
The deposit option, according to Sunstein, “was much less attractive but much more effective.” Just how effective? “52.3% of those enrolled in the deposit program had sustained abstinence for 6 months, as compared with just 17.1% of those enrolled in the reward program.”
There’s clearly a lost opportunity here, but why did so few people take the bet?
The study authors theorize that $150 might have been too much money for people to risk, but another possibility is that people were overly confident in their ability to win the bet. Since the value of the reward condition (getting the $800 prize) had a larger net worth ($650 minus $150 of their own money), perhaps people thought they’d go for the bigger prize if they believed they were just as likely to quit.
You would expect the larger reward to have provided more motivation — clearly, it didn’t. Chalk it up as another demonstration of one of the many quirks of the human psyche.
Alternatively, people might have chosen the reward over the deposit not because they were over confident but because they lacked confidence in their ability to kick their habit. Perhaps people motivated to quit smoking were scared to put down the deposit because they somehow knew they would have to do the hard work of quitting? My intuition tells me this is more likely the case but further research needs to be done.
When it Doesn’t Work
While this technique can prove effective, there are also many faults to this method. First, the most obvious weakness is that so few people are actually willing to take such a wager.
My guess is that the biggest barrier to people not taking the bet is the imposition on their freedom. Previously I’ve written about the psychological phenomenon of reactance — our tendency to reject threats to our autonomy. People generally don’t like being told what to do and taking the bet can feel restrictive.
However, giving people the freedom to choose has been shown to increase compliance. Perhaps offering a limited number of “cheat passes” may disarm reactance by reminding participants that quitting is still their choice.
Second, I doubt this technique would prove effective at stopping behaviors with constant triggers. For example, nail biting is a devilishly hard habit to break because biters are constantly tempted whenever they become aware of their hands. These body-focused repetitive behaviors are not good candidates for using this technique.
Finally, and perhaps worst of all, this technique does not accommodate failure. Even in the smoking cessation study, some 48% of the participants in the most successful group did not achieve their goal. Behavior change is hard and people will inevitably fail. Therefore, any long-term behavior modification program must accommodate those who, for one reason or another, can’t stick with the program.
While the wager method is more effective at stopping certain behaviors for certain people, it is not a perfect program. This technique is yet another tool for healthful behavior modification that works under the right circumstances.