CBS news recently featured the site Stickk.com, created by two Yale professors that helps people ’stick with’ their goals. The testimonials section of the site has stories about people who successfully lost weight, spend more time studying and conquered their own goals. They did so because the key feature of the site is that participants need to commit a dollar value to their goal. As the founders – economists – are apt to think, if people have a financial commitment to an action or lack of actions they will be more likely to continue with them. Not only that but the site allows members to have the money they put up to go to an anti-charity, supposedly strengthening their motivation. If the participants self report they were successful in their work they keep the money, if not it goes to the charity or anti-charity of their choice. A strong motivation.
In perhaps an accidental similarity GlaxoSmithKline developed a drug that makes even the anti-charities motivations look minimal. They developed Alli* the over-the-counter brand of orlistat, an obesity prevention drug designed to help prevent the absorption of fats from the human diet and reduce caloric intake. Alli’s promotions show testimonials about how the pills allowed people to manage their diet in a way that helped them lose weight. What the commercials don’t explicitly explain is that Alli works by blocking the absorption of fat into the intestines, instead sending down the digestive path, all the way down. The product’s fine print warns about the potential for this anal leakage, informing customers that keeping a change of clothes around during the first week of taking Alli is suggested as users are adapt to any unexpected or ignored fat in their meals. What the consumers and makers of Alli might not realize is that in this case, anal leakage is a good thing.
For both Stickk and Alli there are strong motivations for the participants to continue with the program because both have high levels of buy in. In 1959 an experiment was done with college women who wanted to participate in a discussion of the psychology of sex. The women were told they needed to be ’screened’ before they could officially join the discussion but unaware there were three different levels of the screening. Researchers wanted to examine how different screening processes affected the womens’ attitudes about the group. The first group had no initiation or screening and those women were told they could join the discussion. A second group went through a mild initiation of saying sexual but not obscene words and the final group’s initiation included saying sexually obscene words that the researches felt might embarrass the women. Each group was then allowed to listen to a taped conversation – which the researchers designed to be very boring – and offer their opinions of the group. In what’s termed ‘justification of effort’ those women in the first group, who were simply let in, reported the group boring while those in the third group reported the discussion interesting and worthwhile. The experimenters found that our nature for justification and explanations is accelerated by a costly experience. They reasoned that those women who said profanely sexual words needed to rate the discussion higher or else their experience seemed for naught.
If participants put forth a greater effort they will be more likely to continue the process because as ‘social animals‘ we want to be perceived as logical and consistent among our peers. No one wants to go through a challenging, boring or costly experience and not have something to show for it. A liberal doesn’t want to make a donation to George W. Bush’s presidential library – as is an option at Stickk – because they weren’t able to continue with their goals, it’s embarrassing. Alli inadvertently takes that idea even further with the product’s side effects. People who quite literally shit their pants for a cause or goal are more likely to stick with those goals to justify those very side effects. In the competitive field of weight loss products the difference between experiencing anal leakage and not might make Alli the best option for committed weight loss. It’s unlikely that this sort of persuasion will squeeze its way into the Alli promotions but if so the users’ commitment will likely grow even stronger. Whether anal leakage or political distaste is a stronger source of justification remains up for debate but in both cases the participants have strong reasons to remain committed.
*The formal product name is alli with an lowercase a though most written articles capitalize the A
* I wrote this in early 2010 but am republishing here because the previous site is no longer online.