Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Credible Threat Of Shame For Weight Loss?

Social scientists Schelling and Nalebuff test "Game Theory" on weight loss

Since the so-called health "experts" in the United States haven't got a clue about what people need to do to lose weight, leave it to some social scientists to apply a Nobel Prize-winning theory to the subject of weight loss.

Thomas C. Schelling, professor of economics and public policy at the University of Maryland, won the prestigious Nobel Prize in Economics in 2005 for his famous work on the economic application of the "Game Theory," but could it possibly apply to the emotionally touchy subject of weight loss?

For those of you unfamiliar with this concept, there are a multitude of applications of the "Game Theory" in general. However, Schelling said there is one aspect that can work in virtually any given situation where a specific end result is desired such as losing weight. It's called the credible threat.

Schelling's work underlined how this worked in the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union. The idea of a "mutual assured destruction" acted as a deterrent for either country to launch nuclear weapons on each other because both sides feared an attack on the the would lead to their own demise. The result? The credible threat prevented nuclear bombs from ever being launched.

So how does this apply to weight loss? That's what Barry Nalebuff, professor of management at Yale University, wanted to help ABC television news show "Primetime" determine.

To test the "Game Theory," they rounded up two groups of people who have exhibited trouble losing weight in a "Biggest Loser"-type competition to see which team could lose the most weight. The objective of each team member was to lose 15 pounds in two months, or about 2 pounds a week. Each person who lost 15 pounds during the competition earned one point for their team. At the end of the contest, the team that was able to earn the most points won.

The teams for the "Primetime" show, airing tonight at 10PM ET on ABC as part of their special "Basic Instincts" series, included brave volunteers who served as experimental guinea pigs when they weighed in on July 19, 2006.

Here are the participating companies who entered 10 contestants weighing at least 175 pounds to represent their team:

Employees at the Fairfield, CT-based R.C. Bigelow Tea Company
(An insider's look from team member Cheryl is here)


The Bridgeport (CT) Bluefish minor league baseball team office staff

As in everything you see on television these days, this contest had a twist so Nalebuff could test the application of the "Game Theory" to weight loss. The team from Bigelow was given positive feedback throughout their weight loss to encourage each other to success. By the way, NO SPECIFIC strategy was encouraged or suggested, so it was left up to the individual to find what would work for them.

But the members of the Bluefish team were given a different kind of incentive to lose their 15 pounds--failure to reach their 15-pound weight loss goal by the end of the two months meant a photograph of themselves wearing a eensie weensie, teeny weenie bathing suit taken BEFORE they lost weight would be flashed on the big jumbotron scoreboard during one of the baseball games. Ooooo, that's so cruel!

Yet, maybe it's not such a big deal after all. You've seen the contestants on NBC's reality weight loss show "The Biggest Loser" letting it all hang out at the beginning of their contest willingly. But they have another kind of incentive to motivate them--a $250,000 grand prize! Dangle that kind of money in front of just about any fat person and most would gladly take their shirt off for millions of people to see their "man boobs." :)

Unfortunately, the Bluefish team didn't have anything to gain by having their flabby bodies posted for several thousand baseball fans to see, so the objective was to lose 15 pounds to prevent that from happening.

Nalebuff said this credible threat of shame means "there is no tomorrow."

"[For most people] you can always start a diet tomorrow," he said. "The trouble is deciding when to begin. It has to start now!"

Predicting what will happen when the "Game Theory" is in full effect, Nalebuff said weight loss will magically happen for the team members on the Bluefish team because they have motivation that goes beyond improved health and appearance.

Can a negative motivation like humiliation be more effective for weight loss than a group of people exhibiting positive feedback with each other? That's what we'll find out on "Primetime: Basic Instincts" tonight at 10PM ET.

In a way, though, this isn't really a fair experiment of the "Game Theory" because both sides knew they would be appearing on television for this contest. That adds another layer of incentive for BOTH sides to succeed knowing that millions of television viewers would find out how they did. The accountability that comes from knowing people will be tracking your progress can keep you focused on reaching your goal.

I personally experienced this back in 2004 when I lost 180 pounds on the Atkins diet as one of five contestants in a local weight loss contest conducted by the afternoon radio talk show host at Newsradio WORD-AM in Greenville, South Carolina named Ralph Bristol. From January through November, I appeared on Ralph's show about once a month to talk about how I was doing in the "Ralph's Incredible Shrinking Ton" contest.

I remember vividly how one of my fellow contestants talked about how he had gained weight in the previous month because of a rough circumstance in his life and it was painful to hear him talk about that. It motivated me to NOT allow something like that to mess up my weight loss goals.

When all was said and done, I won that contest and the $3,000 worth of prizes that came with it. Was that contest the reason why I lost my weight? It probably had SOME impact on my success that may not have happened as quickly or as much had it not been in place. The reward incentive is what worked for me and shows like "The Biggest Loser."

Can you imagine what would happen though if, for example, a national web site was created listing the names and photographs of anyone who was more than 50 pounds over the "ideal" weight for their age, height, sex, and other demographics? I can see it now--WWW.LOOKWHOSFAT.COM (this is a TOTALLY made-up URL, so don't go there)! Would that make YOU want to try to lose weight?

The final weigh-in took place on September 19, 2006--two months to the day from when the contest began. Be sure to watch ABC tonight at 10PM ET to see what happened. But I'll give you just one little nugget of inspiration from one of the Bigelow contestants named MaryAnn.

She was able to lose 16 pounds, just one pound more than what was needed to earn her team a point in the contest. You'll never believe what she said she did to lose the weight! Check this out:

"Leafy greens are quite okay, but white and starchy…stay away. Drink lots of green tea and water every day, and watch your waistline waste away."

Hmmm, lots of green leafy veggies like spinach and field greens while ditching "white" foods like sugar and white flour as well as the "starchy" foods such as potatoes. Sounds a lot like livin' la vida low-carb to me! CONGRATULATIONS, MaryAnn!

Would you be more apt to start doing something about your weight if you knew that something embarrassing was going to happen if you didn't lose it by a certain time? Also, what about the incentive to get something like money or a nice prize? Would that give you the push you need to reach your goal? What are your thoughts about these two dynamics?

Since I've been a bit stuck within five pounds of my lowest weight lately, then perhaps the threat of humiliation is what I need to force on myself to serve as an incentive for reaching my goal. Any ideas on this? Please be kind. :D

You can e-mail Thomas Schelling about his "Game Theory" at and Barry Nalebuff about the application of this theory on weight loss at

12-20-06 UPDATE: Okay, I just finished watching this episode of "Primetime: Basic Instinct" and I was so impressed by the way they shaped the "Game Theory" weight loss story. BRAVO, ABC! While the threat of having the pictures shown on the Jumbotron was indeed a serious one, TWO of the Bluefish team members STILL did not lose the required 15 pounds (one fell one pound short and another fell just two pounds short).

In the end, their nearly-naked bodies were not shown on the Jumbotron after all, but it taught a good lesson about positive reinforcement versus a credible threat. Oh yeah, the Bigelow team saw OUTSTANDING success as well and their personal commitment to weight loss is what Nalebuff said led to the success in the end. I even heard another one of the participants talk about avoiding bread and sugar during this challenge. YEAH!

I'm still interested in your thoughts about the "Game Theory." Would it work for you? Should I try it to reach my goal of 199 by a certain date in 2007? What say YOU?!

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Blogger mel said...

I was one of the Bigelow team members who participated in the ABC Primetime weight loss challenge and what they didn't show was that the entire Bluefish team wished they were part of our POSITIVE motivation group! Lossing weight is difficult enough to get started, but with the right diet and exercise combined with all the positive feedback you get from others and your progress is, in my opinion, the best way to lasting weight loss success.

12/21/2006 11:40 AM  
Blogger Jimmy Moore said...

CONGRATULATIONS, Mel! I know you and your team members are so proud of what you accomplished. That's an interesting sidelight that the ones who were threatened with humiliation WISHED they had the positive reinforcement instead. ABSOLUTELY!

When I lost 180 pounds in 2004, there's no way I would have been nearly as successful without the gentle urging and prodding from my wife to SUCCEED! You are exactly right--find an eating plan that works for you and exercise those calories off.

You can't help but succeed! Again, GREAT JOB on your team's weight loss (please congratulate them for me!) and keep up the fantastic work.

Have a cup of Bigelow's tea for me!

12/21/2006 11:48 AM  
Blogger Jimmy Moore said...

Elizabeth from the Bigelow team wrote up this blog post at the Bigelow blog about the "Primetime" experience and was nice enough to provide a link to my blog post about it.

THANKS, Elizabeth! You, Mel and everyone who was a part of this experiment are welcome to come here anytime you want. :)

I'm happy to help people who desire weight loss find a way to do it with LOTS of encouragement along the way. Take care and THANKS again!

12/23/2006 11:28 PM  
Blogger Jeff Hamlin said...

What if a doctor were involved? It would be perfectly ok for him or her to say, "Ok, you worthless fat slob, get to work!", no?

12/24/2006 1:29 AM  
Blogger Jimmy Moore said...

After the doctor picked his teeth up off the floor, I think he'd have second thoughts about doing that again. :D

12/24/2006 12:45 PM  
Blogger Kat said...

I was a member of Team Bigelow as well. I tried lossing weight on my own - but having a team that cared about each other - not just focusing on themselves really helped the process of lossing weight a little easier to deal with. We were inspired and also did not want to let any of our team members down. I also learned alot about myself and that I could go on with my life after dealing with the loss of my husband.

Kat D ( -38 pounds and still counting)

12/26/2006 9:09 AM  
Blogger Jimmy Moore said...

I'm sorry for your loss, Kat, but I'm so very proud of you for your weight loss. That's FANTASTIC!!! Keep it going girl because YOU WILL SUCCEED. CONGRATULATIONS!!!

12/26/2006 9:21 AM  

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