What happens when you let a social scientist design for better weight management
Happy holidays! It’s the season for gratitude, celebration, time with family… and weight gain. That’s right, most of our weight gain happens during this time of year, and the problem is that many of us don’t lose it after the season. This continuous weight gain over time contributes to the fact that over a third of the US population is obese. Obesity-related conditions, from heart disease to type 2 diabetes to certain types of cancer, are some of the leading causes of preventable death.
If we think about weight management through the lens of social science, what solution would we come up with?
There are many angles we could take, but my team and I started with the scale. Specifically, we recently created a scale with no display. Sound odd? Perhaps. Let’s suspend judgement for a few minutes and walk through what we know about scales:
1) Stepping on a scale daily is good, especially when done in the morning.
Stepping on a scale daily is correlated with weight loss. In particular, when we step on the scale in the morning, it has the power to serve as reminder of our commitment to health. Think about it – if you’ve just stepped on your scale, will you then have oatmeal or a donut for breakfast? When you get to work, will you take the stairs or the elevator? … and so forth.
2) It’s normal for our weight to fluctuate a lot. But psychologically the gains affect us more than the losses.
Loss aversion is a well-known principle in behavioral economics – it means that losses loom larger than gains. In weight, this would be reversed, of course: a three-pound gain will make us miserable, but a three-pound loss does not make us equivalently happy. Imagine that your weight fluctuates up and down but on average you’re staying within the same range. Because of loss aversion, your overall experience with the scale is negative. You might even avoid stepping on it entirely, losing the benefit of using it as a reminder of health.
3) We expect our weight to react quickly to good or bad behaviors, but it doesn’t. This causes confusion and demotivation.
Imagine you do everything you’re supposed to today. You eat salad for lunch, you skip dessert, and you go for a run. When you step on the scale, your weight has gone up. How does this make you feel? Or, on another day, you sit at home binge-watching the latest show on Netflix while eating junk food all day. When you step on the scale, your weight has gone down.
This is confusing and demotivating. We think that our body’s feedback mechanism will be quick to react to our behaviors (good or bad), but sadly the it does not work that way. This means that many of us end up thinking, “well what the heck, what I’m doing isn’t working anyway, so why bother?”
For these 3 reasons, our team created a display-free scale called Shapa. We’ve kept the positive elements of a scale while removing the negative ones.
With Shapa, we celebrate when you step on your scale. We give you feedback on your weight, but not in pounds. Instead, we use a 5-point scale called Shapa Color. If your weight with is in your normal range (within one standard deviation), congratulations, your Shapa Color is green! If it fluctuates beyond one standard deviation in either direction, your Shapa color changes accordingly. The idea is to take out the noise of normal fluctuations and provide a better feedback mechanism in which we can better understand the outcomes of our behaviors.
On top of this, we also took all that is known in social science about the small tricks that create healthy behavior change, and bundled them into personalized recommendations called Missions. We might suggest that you reorganize your fridge, making unhealthy items harder to reach. If you commute to work, we might suggest that you get off one stop earlier and walk.
Our early results are promising and we’re still capturing data. In our first trial, we randomly assigned people who wanted to lose weight to either use Shapa or a standard scale. We found that after just 12 weeks, people who used Shapa did better. The Shapa users lost between -0.88% and -0.40% of their weight. For standard scale users, the range was much broader and included weight gain: between -0.78% and +1.22% (95% confidence intervals).
Ultimately, in today’s technologically advanced world, we should be thinking about how to use technology to our benefit. Just because it’s possible to build a scale that can report very precise granular information (e.g. your weight is 145.27 pounds and yesterday it was 144.87) does not mean that this kind of system is aligned with human psychology. Our focus should be on behavior change, not decimal-point-level accuracy.
We’re very optimistic about how Shapa can help people make behavior changes to improve their health. If you think it could help you, here is where you can learn more and order one: