StickK: Odysseus on an electronic mast

I came across this site via a behavourial economist, Dr. Ivo Vlaev (thanks!), who was a co-collaborator on a rather large BE-influenced study I’ve been helping out on over the last year. It’s one of the many sites out there using BE principles to, it is hoped, help empower people to do things they want to do.

Harnessing the power of embarrassment. Not wanting to look like a tw*t is a powerful thing (and very hard to achieve)
Harnessing the power of embarrassment. Not wanting to look like a tw*t is a powerful thing (and very hard to achieve)

StickK ( was started a few years ago by an Economics Professor at Yale called Dean Karlan, who had the idea of an online ‘Commitment Store’. One of his collaborators, Ian Ayres, has written a book about this kind of behaviour change, called Carrots and Sticks: Unlock the Power of Incentives to Get Things Done. The basic idea is pretty simple: it provides a vehicle for people to commit publicly to a goal, on the basis that this makes them more likely to stick to that goal and achieve it. As the founders put it:

The Commitment Contract concept is based on two well known principles of behavioral economics:

1.People don’t always do what they claim they want to do, and
2.Incentives get people to do things

Dean believed that today’s health-conscious and socially conscious market was ready for a service that would allow people a way to achieve their goals.

Doing a Just Giving page for your charity event has a similar effect – the embarrassment factor of copping out as a motivator – but what StickK does is enable people to apply this principle more widely to any aspect of behaviour where they want to make a change, and adjust the settings on each target.

For example, you can effectively set yourself a fine for failure, though this is optional. You can choose to share it widely or just involve one or two people – or it could even just be private to yourself (and StickK).

It asks participants to go through four stages in setting up their behaviour change programme:

  1. set the goal (and a time for achieving it; though it can be open-ended also)
  2. set the stakes – what is to happen if you achieve it or don’t achieve it?
  3. appoint a referee to judge success or otherwise
  4. decide which and how many people you want to be in on your endeavour as “supporters” (or Greek tragedic chorus in my case).

It’s only one of many tools out there using basic principles of psychology and behavioural economics in practical ways – it’s been interesting to see this stuff enter the popular mainstream now. We can only expect this to continue.

I was myself involved in some experimental behavioural economics interventions on a recent longitudinal study. The results are confidential but it was certainly interesting to be able to compare qualitative research experiments and see which interventions (with titles like Goal-setting and Substitution) actually made an impact on people’s behaviour over time. It’s the kind of work we were all predicting would become common when we had the first AQR training session on BE in May 2011. Very rewarding to see it fully coming to pass on that project.

You have to pity the Greek heroes – every generation puts them through their ordeals all over again. If only the well-travelled Ithacan had had access to behavioural economics insights and social media, not to mention Google Maps, he might have got home quicker and not had to have himself tied to masts to control his passion for ugly cliff singers. Though perhaps the Homeric era suited him well: I think Penelope mightn’t have hung around for him if she’d read about her absent husband’s exploits via his Twitter feed. Hard to explain that “lost year” on Circe’s island for starters …

Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

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