Posted on October 11th, 2011 by Jeff Thiboutot M.S.
The 12th season of the Biggest Loser show started a couple of weeks ago. There is no doubt that this “reality” show is popular and that most of the competitors have lost a lot of weight during the season. That’s all great. The popularity of the Biggest Loser has lead to many spin-offs and has likely increased the use of weight loss competitions (at work, local gyms, community centers, websites dedicated to this, etc) to “motivate” people to lose weight. But is this the type of situation really helping with the weight problem? What are the long-term ramifications of these types of competitions? Do they lead to a real change in behavior and an ability to keep the weight off?
The focus of this post will be on long-term behavior change and what happens to the many people who do not win the competition, the losers. When it comes to losing fat and reaching a healthy bodyweight the holy grail of success is if a person can maintain the new weight, give or take 5 pounds, for life. There is no benefit to losing a bunch of weight and then regaining it. Regrettably when people do lose weight most of them tend to regain it all back, within 5 years, resulting in a loss of the esthetic and physiological (health) benefits that one often gets from reaching a healthy weight (Anderson et al, and see Chapter 1 in SPEED for a detailed discussion of what a healthy weight is). It is clear that keeping the weight off is a major challenge.
There is little doubt that bodyweight regulation is a complex phenomenon due to the interaction of many physiological, psychological and social variables (Anderson et al; Reeve; see Introduction in SPEED). Within the psychological aspect, there are multiple variables influencing our level of motivation to continue to act as we do. Two important variables that will often increase our adherence to a behavior (i.e., eating certain types and amounts of foods, exercising on a regular basis, etc.) are autonomy which includes intrinsic motivation, and competence (Deci et al; Reeve). These are two of the core concepts of Self-Determination Theory (SDT) a robust psychological theory that explains why we do what we do (Deci et al; Teixeira et al 2011; Reeve).
According to Reeve, autonomy is
“When deciding what to do, we desire choice and decision-making flexibility. We want to be the one who decides what to do, when to do it, how to do it, when to stop doing it, and whether or not to do it all, we want to decide for ourselves how to spend our time. We want to be the one who determines our actions, rather than have some other person or some environmental constraint force us into a particular course of action. We want our behavior connected to, rather than divorced from, our interests, preferences, wants, and desires. And we want our behavior to arise out of and express our preferences and desires. We want the freedom to construct our own goals; we want the freedom to decide what is important and what is and is not worth our time. In other words, we have a need for autonomy.
Behavior is autonomous (or self-determined) when our interests, preferences, and wants guide our decision-making process to engage or not engage in a particular activity. We are not self-determining (i.e., our behaviors are determined by others) when some outside force pressures us to think, feel, or behave in particular ways” (p.106)
According to Reeve, competence is
“Everyone wants and strives to become competent. Everyone desires to interact effectively with their surroundings, and this desire extends to all aspects of our lives – in school, at work, in relationships, and during recreation and sports. We all want to develop skills and improve our capacities, talents, and potential. When we find ourselves face-to-face with a challenge, we give the moment our full attention. When given the chance to grow our skills and talents, we all want to make progress. When we do so, we feel satisfied, even happy. In other words, we have a need for competence.
Competence is a psychological need that provides an inherent source of motivation for seeking out and putting forth the effort necessary to master optimal challenges” (p.115)
The research is clear that fostering greater autonomy and competence is vital for long-term maintenance of behaviors that will facilitate maintenance of a healthy bodyweight (Ryan et al; Silva et al; Teixeira et al).
With the previous information in mind, the main point of this article can now be addressed, which is; Does competing in a weight loss competition likely facilitate changes in how people think and act that will lead to long-term maintenance of the weight lost during the competition?
When I first started working on this article I would have said that these competitions definitely undermine feelings of autonomy and competence and therefore hinder long-term success. This view was largely stemming from a book I had recently read, Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn. The main context of the book was child learning and development. As the title suggests there are many potential problems with external rewards and certain competitive environments. However, as I continued my research I have had to modify my stance a bit. Currently, my general conclusion regarding weight loss competitions with financial rewards (i.e., The Biggest Loser show) is that they can actually increase, although not always, autonomy and competence for the WINNERS. Additionally, there is a percentage of people, likely small, that have a certain psychological trait known as an Optimistic Explanatory Style (click here and here for more info on this), that will not be discouraged from losing and will persist with the exercise and eating behaviors (Czaja et al; Vansteenkiste et al). But, for most of the losers of the competition, which translates to most of the contestants, even if they lose a lot of weight, there will likely be a decrease in autonomy (intrinsic motivation) and competence. Therefore, it is likely that long-term maintenance of the behaviors and resulting weight loss that occurred during the competition will be poor. The overall result is no real improvement for most people participating in these types of competitions and, by extension, no real improvement in the obesity problem. With that said, there are a few variables regarding individuals and the competition structure that can modify the resulting impacts on autonomy and competence.
There seems to be two main types of competition structures: direct competition and performance-based. With the direct competition structure people or groups compete against other individuals or groups for a prize, often monetary in nature, which is referred to as a “competitively contingent reward”. In this scenario there is usually only one winner (an individual or a single group). With the performance-based competition everyone has the potential to win as long as they meet or exceed a pre-determined benchmark, such as losing 5% of their bodyweight, exercising for 30 minutes four times a week, etc. This situation is likely to foster a more collaborative environment which can lead to more people reaching their goals (Czaja). Of the two common competition structures, the performance-based type is the better choice.
Direct competition for a single reward, also known as a zero-sum competition, will usually lead to a decrease in intrinsic motivation. Additionally these competitions can be perceived, by the competitors, as controlling and pressuring, which contributes to the decrease in intrinsic motivation. According to Vansteenkiste and Deci
“when participants won a competition within a controlling, pressuring interpersonal context, their intrinsic motivation was undermined relative to that of participants who won the competition in a context that did not pressure them to beat the opponent” (p.276).
I would say that the Biggest Loser competition, particularly near the end of the competition, is likely to bestow upon its contestants a controlling and pressuring feeling.
What about the financial rewards? Will winning a sizeable monetary prize, such as 250,000 dollars for the Biggest Loser winner, help a person stick to their new behaviors? It is likely that it will not! According to a 2008 Cochrane review on the subject, as described by Marteau et al
“A meta-analysis of nine weight loss trials with follow-up of a year or more showed no improvement from the use of incentives on weight loss maintenance at 12 or 18 months. The authors did, however, note a weak trend in favor of incentives being more than 1.2% of individual’s income” (p.983).
Additionally, the most recent paper I have found on the subject stated “…financial incentives may promote short-term weight loss but appear ineffective in the long-term” (Teixeira et al). Anecdotally, I think it is interesting to note that the Biggest Loser show does not have reunion shows of the past winners, unlike the Survivor© show, and that a number of the winners have not been able to maintain their weight loss after the show, unless they have actually made it their career, even though they have been rewarded with a large amount of money and likely they have a high amount of external pressure to keep the weight off (see here, here, and here). When it comes to reaching and, most importantly, maintaining a healthy weight it seems that throwing money at it won’t help the majority of people.
A final aspect to discuss is the use of positive or performance feedback. Feedback is an important way that we judge if we are competent or not. Therefore our level of competence can go up or down based on the type of feedback we use or receive. Within the context of a competition, particularly a direct competition structure, when we lose there is feedback that we are not competent. If, however, we get positive feedback on the quality of our own performance, even if we lose the competition, we can counteract the negative impact of losing (Vansteenkiste et al). When it comes to competence, which is important for long-term behavior, it is important to get positive feedback regarding our own performance which should be based on benchmarks that were set in a collaborative way and were viewed by the participant/client/patient as challenging (Reeve).
The Biggest Loser show (as well as many other similar shows) seems very popular and most of the contestants lose a large amount of weight. However, the evidence is pretty clear that the structure of these weight loss competitions will usually lead to a decrease in autonomy (intrinsic motivation) and competence for most of the losers, which means most of the contestants seeing that there is only one winner. These changes in autonomy and competence will likely lead to poor long-term adherence to the exercise and eating behaviors that will allow a person to maintain the bodyweight reached during the competition. If you are considering using some type of competition to help with your motivation I would suggest that it has a performance-based structure, it is not overly controlling, positive feedback regarding individual performance is used and you have an Optimistic Explanatory Style. Besides these suggestions, if you really want to get things going and stick to it I would recommend your write out some SMART goals, have a clear vision of what YOU want, and find ways to increase your level of autonomy and competence. The Psychology chapter in SPEED goes into greater detail about these variables. In the end, the Biggest Loser show is probably entertaining to watch for many people, although when I occasionally watch it I usually find it very aggravating, it should NOT be looked at as a useful weight loss tool for most people.
Anderson, D. et al (2005). Interventions for weight reduction: Facing the maintenance problem. Inter J Behavioral & Consultation Therapy; 1(4): 276-285.
Czaja, R. et al (2009). Designing competitions: How to maintain motivation for losers. Amer J Business Ed; 2(9): 91-98.
Deci, E. & Ryan, R. (2008). Self-determination theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development, and health. Canadian Psychology; 49(3): 182-185.
Marteau, T. et al (2009). Using financial incentives to achieve healthy behavior. BMJ; 338: 983-985.
Mata, J. et al (2009). Motivational “spill-over” during weight control: Increased self-determination and exercise intrinsic motivation predict eating self-regulation. Health Psychology; 28(6): 709-716.
Reeve, J. (2004). Understanding motivation and emotion. John Wiley & Sons. Hoboken, NJ.
Silva, M. et al (2011). Exercise autonomous motivation predicts 3-yr weight loss in women. Med Sci Sport Exer; 43(4): 728-737.
Teixeira, P.J. et al (2011). Motivation, self-determination and long-term weight control. Retrieved September 10th, 2011 from www.fmh.utl.pt/obesity/index.php/ana-m-andrade/item/…/47
Teixeira, P.J., Patrick, H. et al (2011). Why we eat what we eat: the role of autonomous motivation in eating behavior regulation. Nutrition Bulletin; 36: 102-107.
Vansteenkiste, M. & Deci, E. (2003). Competitively contingent rewards and intrinsic motivation: Can losers remain motivated? Motivation & Emotion; 27(4): 273-299.