Carrots and Sticks

We’ve been thinking a lot about carrots and sticks lately. Wellpepper is an application designed to motivate you to do your exercises. It does so by making it easier to see what you’re supposed to do, reminding you it’s time, and providing words of encouragement. It also sends your results to your physical therapist. When we surveyed some of our early adopters, we found out that the reminders and the knowledge that your therapist was watching were two of the biggest motivators. You might consider these both to be sticks: nagging and watching over you.

Carrot and stick calling names

Carrots and Sticks from

Some studies have shown that people are more motivated by fear of loss than by positive reinforcement. The website has over $12M dollars at stake based on this very principle. Stickk users set a goal, and if they don’t keep in line with that goal, their money is donated to an organization they don’t believe in. NPR recently profiled a user who is donating money to the NRA if he does not meet his weight loss goals. Contrast this with three nurses in the same story who stand to win $10,000 if they meet their target. Would their motivation be stronger if they were given the $10,000 up front and had it taken away if they didn’t lose weight? You can read or listen to the full story on NPR’s website.

Employee health and wellness plans are using both carrot and stick motivation. Carrots are in the form of points and rewards for achieving certain fitness milestones. Sticks are in the form of increased premiums for engaging in dangerous behavior.

According to behavioral economist Dan Ariely, emotions are a powerful motivator, especially negative emotions. One of his readers found that she was unable to change her behavior until negative emotions overwhelmed her. For years she had been trying to bring her lunch to work. She knew that bringing her lunch was more nutritious and would save money. It wasn’t until she moved to a job that had no lunch options but the cafeteria which she found disgusting that she was able to make a positive behavior change and start brown bagging.

At Wellpepper we think both carrots, sticks, and other forms of motivation are important, and it’s circumstantial. For example, someone who is in rehab due to a car accident might not want to be reminded of what they will lose if they don’t do their exercises. Someone who is in rehab for a sports injury that happened because they didn’t warm up properly might be more motivated by being reminded that if they don’t go their exercises they might not play pick-up basketball again. Motivational psychologist Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson does a great job of outlining how different people are motivated in this article on stress management.

How are you motivated? Does it change depending on what goal you are trying to achieve?


Posted in: Healthcare motivation

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