One reason the Weight Watcher’s program is successful at helping people lose weight is that it provides point-based guidelines for daily consumption. The system is more comprehensive than anything else you will find and it helps you avoid making substitutions that accidentally undermine your goal.
The point system provides a measurable way of staying on track on a daily basis. Sounds simple but it is a powerful cognitive design technique. The system once learned provides a “mental budget” or a low cognitive load way of self-regulating. I can quickly determine if I am on target before I eat the food – a leading indicator, rather than just weighting myself to see if I am track – a lagging indicator. Further, I only have so much mental energy during the day to control my emotional and behavioral reactions and everything is pulling on it. The point system or mental budget uses very little of that mental energy compared to other programs for regulating my weight.
Recent research on To eat or not to eat? Mental Budgets Help Control Consumption, found several ingredients are necessary:
“First, having a mental budget alone was not sufficient. Participants also needed to have an active goal of not wanting to consume sweets. Second, the information about the products needed to match the units of the mental budgets. Third, mental budgets succeeded when consumers followed specific numerical recommendations, like the Weight Watchers® points.”
From a design perspective this suggests mental budgets don’t provide primary motivation for behavior change. Indeed, I have found they can provide an excuse to avoid it (I hate to have to track everything). However, they do provide a low-cognitive load technique for improving the skill of self-regulation. Furthermore, since they are based on measurable leading indicators they can provide a steady stream of reinforcement or continuing motivation. Skill + continuing motivation = new behaviors so these systems can work.
The challenge for the cognitive designer is – can we use mental budgets as a design pattern for behavior change? Can the success of weight watchers be replicated in other domains?
More detailed information can be found in the dissertation proposal, Beating Back that Triple-Chocolate Cake: Mental Budgets as Instruments of Self-Regulation.