Contra Positive Reinforcement: Why Beeminder Is A Glutton For Punishment

Friday, March 26, 2021
By dreeves

A bee holding a carrot (down) and a stick (up)

Previously on the Beeminder blog: debating negative vs positive reinforcement and, in case you care about using these psychology terms correctly, clarifying that negative reinforcement ≠ punishment. Also “Beeminder: Like Pact Except All We Do Is Take Your Money”.

Here’s a common (pointed) question about Beeminder:

Isn’t it better to use intrinsic, positive motivation?

Our answer is that positive reinforcement is great but punishment can work amazingly too. Loss aversion is powerful.

But, sure, ideally you should make Beeminder superfluous by establishing habits and cultivating discipline and setting up trigger-action plans, and peer support, etc etc. But the real power of Beeminder — besides the tracking and graphs and reminders and all that — is catching you in case you fail at making it superfluous. It’s like an insurance policy.

Here’s another common — and even more pointed but also more constructive — question about Beeminder:

Could Beeminder hold your money and give it back to you or use other tricks to reward you for success instead of punish you for failure?

This sounds good but we’re not into it. I mean, first, we do have plenty of positive reinforcement in the form of pretty graphs and the satisfaction of adding datapoints. You can even spin the pledges as positive — they help you quantify the value of your goals. That can be powerful information for us rationality nerds.

But why not reframe Beeminder to focus on rewards? Well, paying money up front and getting it back unless you derail is a trick — it’s equivalent to getting stung. At least for me personally, the equivalency would always be at the back of my mind and bother me.

And there are more pragmatic problems. I like having scary high pledges on some of my goals. It would feel especially unreasonable to pay up front on those. Even more pragmatically, most goals are open-ended: get 10k steps (or work 40 hours, or practice piano for half an hour or whatever) per day forever. There’s typically no particular point when it makes sense to get your money back. It would be totally inefficient to have money always flowing back and forth and would really muddy the mental accounting in terms of how much you’re paying Beeminder for the motivation it’s giving you.

Not to mention the laws and accounting involved. We’d be kind of a bank and have revenue that wouldn’t count as revenue. I assume this part would be perfectly overcomeable if we were convinced the psychology / behavioral economics were right. But, again, we are not.

In conclusion, we can’t afford to literally pay you to go to the gym or clear your inbox or write your thesis or whatever. We’re a business. So ultimately — for the monetary aspect at least — all we can offer are negative consequences. “Do what you said you’d do or pay up.” Trying to psychologically flip it around just adds fuzziness and inefficiency. And you’re too smart to fall for it anyway. Just embrace the punishment!

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