Can Your Friends Bribe You to Get Healthy? Neuroscience Says Yes

HealthRally is a company that Paul McCartney would understand well. It’s all about getting a little help from your friends.

A little help making health-related changes, that is—like quitting smoking, losing weight, or adhering to an exercise program. There’s plenty of science to suggest that these goals are easier to achieve when a person has close friends and family supporting them—and even easier when there’s money on the line. HealthRally lets a group of friends or family members organize around someone who’s trying to achieve a goal, such as “run a 5K” or “lose 15 pounds before the wedding,” by contributing to a financial reward that’s only handed out if and when the goal is met. Through the startup’s website, strivers get carefully timed motivational messages, while supporters get updates about their loved one’s progress.

Lurking right behind HealthRally’s cheerful Web interface, there’s a complex recipe that draws on lessons from neuroscience and behavioral economics to keep users and their teams of supporters inspired. The co-founder of the company is Zack Lynch, who’s something of a celebrity in the world of business and neuroscience; he’s the executive director of a Washington, D.C. lobbying group called the Neurotechnology Industry Organization, the co-founder of a market research firm called Neuroinsights, and the co-author of The Neuro Revolution, a book about advances in brain science and their implications for law, economics, marketing, art, religion, and even warfare. Lynch says he co-founded HealthRally with Peter Kaminski, the co-founder and former chief technology officer of enterprise software company Socialtext, because he didn’t see anybody using the latest insights from brain science to help consumers beat common problems like obesity and addiction.

HealthRally co-founder Zack Lynch in an interview with NBC Bay Area

“The cutting edge of neuroscience is behavior change,” Lynch argues. Indeed, studies prove people will go out of their way to earn modest rewards. One 2009 study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, for example, showed that a $750 reward was enough to increase smoking cessation rates by a factor of three (15 percent of people in the reward group were still non-smokers after a year, compared with 5 percent in a control group). At HealthReally, which earns money by keeping a 7 percent slice of each reward administered through the site, Lynch and Kaminski are betting that they can translate such science into profits.

HealthRally debuted last fall with $400,000 in seed funding from Esther Dyson, Ty Danco, and other prominent angel investors. This spring the company went through the incubator program at Rock Health, the San Francisco-based haven for healthcare technology startups, which held its latest demo day this week. In a pair of interviews with me—one held before the company entered Rock Health, and one after it finished—Lynch shared the story behind the startup’s founding, as well as some thoughts about how HealthRally is different from Keas and other companies applying “gamification” principles to health. He says the startup is gaining users fast, and is now in talks with venture firms, software companies, and other potential strategic investors about raising Series A financing. The edited transcript below captures our conversations.

Wade Roush: Where did the idea for HealthRally come from?

Zack Lynch: It was through writing the book that a couple of things came to me. One was that the cutting edge of neuroscience is behavior change. The time to develop treatments for new brain illnesses is long and costly; it takes hundreds of millions of dollars if not billions to develop central nervous system drugs. But within the software world I saw an emerging segment that I call neurosoftware—taking the basic principles of neuroscience and applying them to software. Some of the early companies are developing cognitive-fitness apps to slow memory decline. Others are focused on cognitive behavioral therapy for depression. There was no one really focused on leveraging the cutting edge of behavioral economics and neuroscience and applying them to obesity and addiction, which are the two largest markets of all. It was the meshing of those things, as well as some personal experiences, that helped me come to the “aha” moment that was HealthRally.

WR: What sorts of personal experiences?

ZL: My brother was a smoker. He lives in Seattle, is an avid photographer, and is chief strategy officer of his own biotech startup. We wanted to support and inspire him to quit smoking—“we” being his family and some of his friends. I said I’d put in $100, and each of them said they’d put in some money. That grew pretty soon to $500, but I realized that … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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3 responses to “Can Your Friends Bribe You to Get Healthy? Neuroscience Says Yes”

  1. Eric Lynch says:

    Nice article. Having your friends and family looking over your shoulder is a bit daunting but they can provide some amazing support if you ask for it. This was a tough goal  for me having started in high school and rationalized it through numerous course in genetics, cancer biology, and antatomy. I am still smoke free and appreciate daily the support of my HealthRally Team.

  2. Kderow says:

    A new, powerful, mobile-phone
    based intervention (an app), is now available on all Android smartphone devices
    as of January 1, 2012 (and will be available on Apple devices in 4-5 months).
    This app is an intervention of the type that has now been recommended by the
    Community Preventive Services Task Force appointed by the CDC, and, it is more
    powerful and more comprehensive than any other commercially available smoking
    cessation app program available today. This app is called, “Quit Smoking,
    Start Now,” and you can learn much more about it on the website,,
    if you choose to.


    This app is based on existing and
    emergent psychological theory, brain science research and proven behavioral
    modification techniques. The app is easy to use, intuitive and even offers a
    unique “panic-button” feature that the app user can launch any time
    they feel an urge to smoke at an inappropriate time not signaled by the program
    itself, or, after they have quit and are in danger of relapsing. The app is
    based on utilizing and enhancing the smoker’s own willpower and resolve to quit
    smoking, emphasizing to the quitter that the power to quit resides in their own
    intentions, that is, in their brain.