Apps that Help You Help Yourself: Do Incentives Work?

August 18, 2014 | By: Megan Breinig | 2 min read

The ‘help me help myself’ concept is nothing new. Humans have always sought to improve themselves. We vow, again and again and especially on New Year’s Day, to quit smoking, take up running, go green, save more cash, consume fewer calories—in short, to nix bad habits and establish good ones. Until recently, we relied mostly on willpower to keep those New Year’s resolutions. But now, consumers are discovering new ways to nudge themselves toward better habits.

self help

The behavioral psychology approach by B.F. Skinner developed in the 1920’s suggested that by repeatedly rewarding good choices and punishing bad ones, it’s possible to condition permanent behavior change. This concept endured some harsh criticism and fell out of favor for several decades, but it’s enjoying a renaissance today—only with a few twists. This time, participants are willingly choosing to have their behaviors modified. Moreover, they’re relying on modern tools to do so, particularly through the use of digital apps. Brands can get in on the action by developing the ‘nudges’ they need to stay on track.

Self-Help Apps:

Self-betterment apps are in and flourishing, from LoseIt!, which facilitates weight loss through daily ‘calorie budgets,’ to a Facebook app called Aherk that encourages productivity via blackmail (users set a challenge with a deadline, then upload an embarrassing photo of themselves that is posted to their profile if they fail to complete the task). Consumers are seeking technological help to keep them motivated and dedicated to reaching goals.

Offering App Incentives:

As consumers and society as a whole we increasingly turn to behavioral modification, businesses are recognizing that sticks are a lot more useful when there’s a carrot attached. They’re utilizing incentives, rather than demands, to foster behaviors that benefit the individual as well as the group.

For example GNC Holdings Inc., the nutrition and supplement retailer, is one of 400 companies across the country to work with a weight-loss program run by New York weight-management company HealthyWage. HealthyWage offers weight-loss contests in which a team of employees can win as much as $10,000.

Cinemark, the movie theatre chain, is also testing a system of positive reinforcement. As a segment of its original movie app for iOS and Android is a separate option allowing users to put their phones into "CineMode." The app dims the users phone and puts it into a movie mode similar to the phone’s ‘do not disturb’ setting. Since the app has access to the phone and knows what the user is doing, it can keep track of whether or not the user follows protocol and leaves CineMode enabled throughout the entire movie. Once the movie is finished and the guest exits CineMode, Cinemark automatically sends a reward (digital coupon) through the app and store it in the Rewards section.

Numbers Don’t Lie:

Though it may seem that consumers would feel uncomfortable being tracked and rewarded (or punished) for their behavior, the volume of app downloads suggests otherwise. These apps are well-used, considering popular fitness apps like My Fitness Pal, RunKeeper and Azumio received over 20 million downloads in 2013. Ultimately, this trend implies that consumer behavior will no longer be shaped entirely by passing whims and spontaneous desires. Instead consumers will actively turn to formalized—yet fun—strategies, in which behavior is guided, coached, rewarded and otherwise nudged to be its best.

Tell us What You Think:

What do you think about this trend? Is the app invasion a good thing? Or is training consumers on reward systems conditioning the consumer mind and detrimental to personal privacy and freedom?

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