Dec. 20, 2006 — -- The Nobel Prize-winning idea known as Game Theory has proven applications in economics, but could it have applications in something as mundane as losing weight? That is exactly the issue at the heart of an unusal competition.
Two teams of people who've had trouble losing weight in the past are competing to see who can lose more. On one side: the front office and behind-the-scenes staff of the Bridgeport Bluefish minor league baseball team. On the other: workers from the family-run R.C. Bigelow Tea Company.
Each company volunteered a team of people who wanted to take part in the competition. In "Primetime's" competition, each person who lost 15 pounds in two months would earn a point for their side, and the team with the most points wins.
The participants knew nothing about the team they were competing against. That was on purpose, because the competition was centered on motivation, and the rules were not the same on both sides.
The tea company volunteers are all trying to lose weight in order to feel better and to help their team win…all positive motivation. The baseball team volunteers have all that, but with a very different motivation: fear of humiliation. They are facing a most unusual threat based on an aspect of Game Theory known as the credible threat.
The notion of credible threat is part of what won the Nobel Prize for Thomas Schelling of the University of Maryland. According to Schelling, for a threat to work, there must be absolutely no doubt it will happen. It is why what's known as "mutual assured destruction" worked for decades during the nuclear arms race. The Russians and Americans so convinced each other they would respond with a nuclear blast, that neither side ever risked an initial attack.
Schelling believes that what applies in international geo-political circles, can also apply in everyday situations. Thus, with the help of Barry Nalebuff, a professor at Yale University's School of Management, "Primetime" created a credible threat for weight loss.
Each volunteer from the Bluefish agreed to model a tiny bathing suit and have photographs taken. They signed an agreement that says if they do not lose 15 pounds in two months, the embarrassing photos will go up on a Jumbotron scoreboard during one of the team's home games.
"You can always start a diet tomorrow," Nalebuff says. "The trouble is deciding when to begin. For these people, there is no more tomorrow. It has to start now!"
Nalebuff is confident that having backed themselves voluntarily into a corner -- with the key to their own success -- they will all lose the weight they'd been unable to in the past.
The contest is not only a weight loss game, it is an experiment looking at positive versus negative motivation. Will the Bluefish's negative credible threat prove more effective in losing weight than Bigelow Tea's positive motivation of being part of a team?
Will Game Theory succeed? Will any of the participants be able to lose 15 pounds?
Two members of the Bluefish team fell just short of losing the required 15 pounds, but "Primetime" didn't humiliate them in public. The point of the experiment was the threat, so instead a group picture of the team was displayed on the stadium Jumbotron.
And it turned out that positive praise did trump the negative threat. The Bigelow Tea team narrowly won the competition.