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

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when you have friends and family pledging for you to do better, it’s real money coming out of their pockets. Would you rather earn $50 from a friend or $50 from your company? There is a different valence to the money and what it means. There is a sense of moral obligation that comes along with money from friends and family.

WR: Personally, I’m not sure that HealthRally is something I’d want to use to achieve a goal. When I set a goal, I usually just try to go do it. I don’t necessarily want all my friends and family looking over my shoulder.

ZL: It’s really interesting pitching the HealthRally idea to people in the Bay Area versus people in the South or the Midwest. Everyone is into fitness here. It’s all about the quantitative self—“How does this help me track myself better.” You guys are data junkies. That is not the middle of the bell curve. The middle of the bell curve is the real America. Ground zero for our product would be a place like Atlanta, where people are obese and smoking, but still connected.

WR: Can you talk about your experiences as part of the Rock Health accelerator this spring?

ZL: For a company like ours it was a fantastic experience. Learning alongside the other digital entrepreneurs in the health-tech space was not only joyful, in that we were all trying to do new stuff in different ways, but it was also valuable from the perspective of all the new relationships that were instantly made possible by their network. Getting together with the folks from Procter & Gamble to explain our grand strategy—that’s a meeting that might have taken me two months to set up on my own, but at Rock Health it happened the next day. Ditto for Mohr Davidow, and for relationships with health plans like UnitedHealth Group. Conversations like that are dramatically accelerated by being part of Rock Health.

WR: How did the product or your business strategy evolve while you were in the program?

ZL: One of the things that we have been focusing on since we joined is the design of the Rally Coach experience and really optimizing our AI engine to learn how to appropriately nudge people, and when not to nudge, and how to nudge—which messages get people to move and which don’t. Cooper Design, a design firm that supports Rock Health, basically offered free time with some of their best designers to walk us through some of the user experience issues they’ve seen, from having done this a bunch, and get their feedback. We worked on tweaking the messaging, the design, the buttons. That’s been the focus over the past couple of months—how do you dramatically increase engagement by leveraging the technology.

WR: You had a large alpha test with over 3,000 people even before you entered Rock Health. How are things going on the user acquisition side?

ZL: We are on a growth curve that is totally driven by our public relations campaign. When stories get placed in magazines and blogs, we see immediate spikes. We were in AARP’s magazine last week, and in the South we saw a bunch of new users, especially in Florida. Another thing we are trying to figure out and capitalize on, as I mentioned in my demo day presentation, is that a lot of people are doing weight loss rallies before weddings. And it’s not just the brides and bridesmaids doing it, it’s the groom also. So we want to make that part of our secret sauce.

WR: A wedding is an interesting example. By definition it’s a one-time event with a real deadline. How do you get people to stay active after that? And more generally, once a reward on HealthRally has been claimed, how do you get people coming back to pursue additional goals?

ZL: There are a couple of ways we target that. First, we recommend maintenance rallies. When somebody is approaching their goal, we send out notes to their supporters saying “Your person is 95 percent of the way there, now is the time to start thinking about a maintenance rally.” Say it was a three-month weight loss rally—you might double your pledge in order to get that person to stick to their new weight.

From a theory perspective, I feel our product differs from any of the enterprise-to-employee products because the money is coming from your aunt and your mom and your brother. When they put in the money, you have an obligation to stick with it. They are the people who will say, “Hey, those jeans look good on you,” or “Hey, it looks like you are falling back.”

WR: Yeah, it’s funny how our friends and family members can be more brutally honest with us than our co-workers.

ZL: A lot more. That is part of the secret sauce too. I think we are in the early days of understanding how you mix social and financial incentives to reach health goals, but in the long term enterprises will want to adopt this approach.

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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:

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