Weak-Willed? There’s an App for That. 

Meet GymPact, a new company that wants to charge you for not exercising.

People on treadmills in gym
Will GymPact make people go to the gym more?

Photograph by Jupiterimages/Getty Images.

Welcome to January, the month of broken promises. Each December we take stock of our lives and decide where we’d like to see improvement, confirming our aspirations with New Year’s resolutions.

Sadly, resolutions are shattered as swiftly as they’re made: You’re probably already wavering on that one to skip dessert. Change, after all, is hard. If you really wanted to act differently you probably wouldn’t need a resolution to persuade you to change. But perhaps there is a way to use a different set of incentives to persuade us to behave ourselves. The new startup GymPact is betting on the idea that Americans want to get better at resolving. To put it another way, they believe there’s a market for a service that will do little more than charge you money for not going to the gym.

The fundamental problem of weakness of the will has plagued mankind from time immemorial. The ancient Greeks had a special word for it, akrasia, which comes down to us in part because Plato found it so vexing that he decided it was impossible, writing that “no one goes willingly toward the bad, or what he believes to be bad” and that apparent instances must in fact represent some form of ignorance. Modern behavioral economists, less interested in the metaphysical issues, call it “time-inconsistent preferences” and have simply documented that it occurs systematically in ways that undermine the neoclassical modeling assumptions of humans as rational utility maximizers. We turn out to be quite myopic, systematically undermining our best-laid plans to eat better, save more, exercise, and all the rest no matter how genuinely persuaded we may be that doing those things will make us happier. But behavioral economists also find that these problems are not insurmountable and that little tweaks to the presentation of problems can sometimes make a big difference.

The basic GymPact model is built on co-founder Yifan Zhang’s experience in an undergraduate behavioral economics class at Harvard, plus fairly basic technology.

To get started, you download an iPhone app that lets you check in and check out of a database of gyms (and you can add your gym if it’s not already in the database). Then you set your pact for the week, telling the service how many days you want to workout and for how long and how big a monetary penalty you want to charge yourself for failure. Over the course of the week, you do your workouts and your check ins. If you don’t show up as often as you promised yourself, you get penalized. If you hit your target, you get a reward paid out of the revenue pool generated by the failures. GPS tracks whether or not you’re actually at the gym, and payouts are proportional to the amount of time you commit to so there’s no way to earn big bucks with comically lax exercise goals. It’s a quick and easy way to pre-commit yourself to meeting your goals, and make it less likely that akrasia will undermine you.

In principle, solutions like this could drastically change the country for the better. An extremely large share of our most intractable policy problems are difficult precisely because they’re so intertwined with questions of motivation. In most circumstances, health care services improve health much less than lifestyle changes. By the same token, America’s very poor rates of high school and college completion are, on some level, problems of motivation and values. The best intentions of policymakers in these fields are regularly undermined by the existence of a large and savvy group of marketers skilled at exploiting our weaknesses and tempting us into one more pack of Sour Patch Kids at the movie theater or one more gym membership we won’t actually use.

But I’m skeptical that GymPact will make people go to the gym more. In a nice, healthy market, the more you use a service the more money the provider makes. Heavy users are good customers, and the whole apparatus of marketing and customer service is about making you engage with the product. Gyms, by contrast, are in the akrasia business. The ideal customer signs up for a long-term contract in January, is gone by March, and keeps getting billed for months to come without burdening the facility. If you are going to show up, the gym badly needs to upsell you on personal training and other services. Someone who’s just in there every day taking up locker space and a treadmill isn’t what you want.

The problem with GymPact is that the more successful it is, the less revenue it generates, and the more revenue it generates, the more customers will despise it. If GymPact really works, and you go to the gym more to avoid losing money, then there won’t be any revenue or any way to fund rewards.

The person who’s going to reap the most benefit from the GymPact reward system is arguably the person who needs it least—members of that iron willed tribe who’ve been managing to get themselves to the gym regularly without an iPhone app for years, and now will be able to nab suckers’ money for their trouble.

I hope I’m wrong, of course. If this really works we can expect a host of new pre-commitment programs of various kinds to help us all work through our different problems and better live the lives we say we want to have. The benefits could be enormous. But thinking about the problems involved brings home the power of the philosopher’s perspective over the economist’s. A solution to the deep strangeness of why people would do things that they know they shouldn’t do is more than an app away.