Deborah Beck Busis, LCSW Diet Program Coordinator
An interesting article was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1971: Effects of Externally Mediated Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation. Through a series of experiments, this article details what happens when people are given an external reward for completing a task (e.g. money). The task stops being intrinsically motivating and is instead motivated by expected financial rewards. Although, interestingly, when verbal reinforcement and positive feedback were introduced as external rewards, people’s intrinsic motivation did not decrease.
In our work with dieters, we have found that many (if not most) rely very heavily on the scale going down as an external reward for their hard work. They believe that if they were perfect, or close to perfect, on their diets, the scale should go down, if not every day, then certainly every week. This is problematic because the scale simply doesn’t work that way. It’s not only measuring what dieters ate the previous day, it’s also measuring other physiological processes. There isn’t a direct one to one correlation. Every dieter (who isn’t on a starvation diet) has days when the scale goes up or stays the same when they were certain it “should” have gone down. By the same token, most have had days when they were surprised the scale didn’t go up. When dieters are externally motivated and when the scale fails to go down when they believe it should, they get extremely frustrated and are at high risk for giving up.
We work hard with our dieters to help them build intrinsic rewards for staying on track so that when the scale doesn’t go down at a time when they think it should, they are more easily able to accept it and keep moving forward. We teach our dieters that the scale is not a reliable reward for their hard work on any given day or week (although over time, it is), but there are so many other rewards that are reliable. When dieters make on-track decisions they get to feel in control; they get to feel good when they go to bed at night; they get to feel good when they wake up the next morning; and they feel good knowing that they are doing what they need to do for their health. As time goes on, even when the scale doesn’t move every day or week, they have additional intrinsic rewards. For example, they are able to move around more easily and become less winded; enjoy better health, fit into their clothes better; feel more confident in social situations; and participate more freely and easily in leisure activities.
We also teach dieters to give themselves credit (an intrinsic reward) whenever they practice the dieting skills we teach them (such as eating everything sitting down, slowly, and mindfully; reading cards with responses to their sabotaging thoughts; accepting cravings and redirecting their attention when they want to eat but it is not time to eat). We help them focus on feeling good about what they’re doing to control their eating.
Whenever we work with a dieter who is feeling frustrated by the scale not doing exactly what she thinks it “should” do, we always remind her that the scale is actually doing exactly what it should be doing, given what she ate the day before and other processes that are going on in her body (e.g., amount of water retention, hormonal changes, etc.). But even if she’s not happy about the number, we have her make a list of other aspects of controlling her eating that she is happy about, and we coach her to pay attention to those things. We still have dieters weigh themselves somewhere between once a day and once a week because we find that the advantages of doing so outweigh the disadvantages– greater accountability, for one. But we have dieters focus much less on the number and much more on all the other, reliable rewards for their on-track behavior. In doing so, we teach our dieters to be intrinsically motivated to stay on track, which helps them stay the course even when the scale fails to deliver the numbers they wish.
Deci, E. L. (1971). Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of personality and Social Psychology, 18(1), 105.