A new study finds the prospect of receiving a gift card barely prompts people to hit the gym more often, suggesting intrinsic motivation may be more important.
• A new study finds that the prospect of receiving an Amazon gift card didn't motivate people to visit the gym significantly more often.
• This is in line with previous research around effective motivation.
• The findings suggest that intrinsic motivation — working out because it's fun — might be more important.
I love going to the gym.
Actually, scratch that — I hate going to the gym. I hate being sweaty, and clumsy, and grunt-y — but I love being able to drop the sentence, "Yesterday in my 'total body conditioning' class …" in casual conversation without fibbing.
I guess you could say that, for me, the reward of gloating about working out outweighs the cruel and inhuman punishment of actually, you know, working out. So it makes sense that if you added another reward — say, cash — I'd work out more often than I do now.
Except — assuming I'm like many other Americans — that double-reward system wouldn't work so well. A new working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that paying people to hit the gym barely makes a difference in how often they go.
For the study, researchers divided about 800 new members at a Midwestern gym into four groups.
The first group received a $30 Amazon gift card after six weeks, unconditionally.
The second, third, and fourth groups were rewarded for going to the gym at least nine times in the first six weeks of membership — with a $30 Amazon gift card, a $60 Amazon gift card, and an item of their choosing from Amazon worth about $30, respectively.
As it turns out, in the first six weeks, participants who were promised rewards made just 0.14 more visits to the gym, on average, than the group who didn't get any reward. That's not a whole lot.
The study authors cite other research that found financial incentives do make a difference in how often people visit the gym — albeit a modest one. So at this point, it's hard to say how well money works (or doesn't) to motivate people to be healthy.
Still, the newest results recall an observation from behavioral economist Dan Ariely, who in his 2016 book, "Payoff," argued that financial incentives aren't the be-all-end-all when it comes to motivation.
Ariely and his colleagues conducted a study that found workers who received financial bonuses for their performance ultimately performed worse than workers who received compliments from their boss — or pizza. Ariely says that intrinsic motivation — i.e. doing a good job for the sake of doing a good job — can be even more powerful than cash.
In the case of exercise, Ariely previously told Business Insider that simply enjoying the workout can be the greatest motivation of all.
In other words, try to craft an exercise routine you enjoy and you'll be more likely to stick with it. And try not to rely on outside rewards, like earning cash or a gift certificate if you visit the gym often enough.
As for me, it's possible that the joy of subtly bragging might fade — or that all my friends might find me so intolerable that they eventually ditch me. In the long run, I'd be wiser to choose workouts that are fun in the moment.