Perverse Incentives and the Paradox of Beeminder’s Sting

Sunday, August 19, 2012
By dreeves

A bee with a dollar sign hanging from a stick coming out of its head like a carrot

People often complain about Beeminder’s perverse incentives. We started to address that at the end of our recent blog post comparing ourselves to GymPact:

It seems that from the perspective of those paying us, Beeminder is providing a ton of value and a ton of motivation and the occasional cost of derailment is a fair fee for Beeminder’s service. In that sense it’s almost natural that the fee is waived for people who never go off track. Those people evidently didn’t really need Beeminder in the first place.

In other words, Beeminder is putting itself on the map for exactly one reason: it makes people more awesome.

But that can lead to the opposite complaint — that Beeminder’s sting is so valuable as to be self-defeating. In other words, it’s hard to be motivated by the threat of having to pay Beeminder if you feel that Beeminder has already earned that money! Please don’t laugh but we’d like to propose that the solution is to just hurry and get to an obscene pledge amount. After the $5 and $10 pledges it gets obscene quite quickly: $30, $90, $270…

“We need to get up to crazier pledges before they’re motivating.”

We ourselves have the problem of reduced sting even moreso: for some of our goals we pay our users and for others we’re just paying ourselves (minus credit card processing fees and other overhead). But it just means that we need to get up to crazier pledges before they’re motivating. The $90 Bethany and I both have on bmndr.com/d/meta and bmndr.com/b/meta is maybe/sorta sufficiently motivating but we tend to skate the edge and it’s probably a matter of time before something comes up and makes us derail. (Tip: Keep an eye on blog.beeminder.com/blogdog for your chance to win! UPDATE: We’ve each paid out the $90 in the meantime and are currently each at $270 at risk.) I have $810 pledged on bmndr.com/d/ontask but that was frightening enough that I made the road super conservative. But I think that still works. If I get annoyed with myself for not being on task enough then I’ll dial up that road despite the frighteningly high cost of failure.

UPDATE: It’s now possible to step back down the pledge schedule.

UPDATE 2016: I’ve had $810 at risk on my “work on Beeminder” goal for a year and a half now and it works like a charm.

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