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Making It Easier to Be Honest—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was posted on newyorktimes.com on October 5, 2010.

Making It Easier to Be Honest
By Ian Ayres ’86

http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/05/making-it-easier-to-be-honest/  

I was a little scared to get on the scale this morning. I had eaten copious amounts this weekend – including a quarter pounder at McDonalds.

But my fear was heightened because I knew that my weight would be automatically tweeted at twitter.com/ianweight:

You see, last week I received a wonderful new piece of technology, the withings wifi scale, and I have synched it to automatically report to a special Twitter account.

The scale is a bit pricey ($145 on Amazon), but works like a dream. Within 25 minutes of opening the box, I had the scale connected to the Internet and publishing my weight, BMI and body fat percentage (based somewhat crudely on bioelectrical impedance) data to withings.com, to the withings iPhone app, and to twitter. Easy-peasy. Since then, it has worked like a charm. Somehow it magically distinguishes between the four members of my family and tracks our info separately. Each member can separately choose whether and with whom to share the data. Consider this an unsolicited rave review.

(I am not sure how “withings” is pronounced – maybe “WI-things,” because they produce things that are wi-fi enabled.)

My biggest surprise is experiencing a new range of emotions (including excitement and a kind of fear) when I’m about to stand on the scale. I’m committed to reporting my weight honestly to stickK.com and stand ready to step up whenever my referee calls me to his scale. But notwithstanding my commitment to honesty, it’s a little scary to give up control over how I report the weight. What if the scale goes haywire and mistakenly reports that I weight more than 185 lbs? I’d have some explaining to do if I didn’t report a forfeiture that week on my maintenance contract.

The withings scale provides two connected values for dieters. First, it makes it easier for you to keep track of your weight. It seems like it shouldn’t be that much of a hassle to write down your weight after getting on the scale. For more than a year, I did that on Google docs. But every extra click reduces the chance that you will sustain the behavior. The automation of the recording process means that a lot of people are going to remain a lot more “mindful” of where they are and where they’ve been. Second, it makes it harder to fudge when you’re telling your weight to others. Even though “ianweight” currently has zero followers, the information is there for anyone to see.

Making it easier for others to verify my true weight should also reduce one anxiety bidders have about whether to plunk down money on my ebay auction. Because of the withings scale, they shouldn’t worry as much that they will have trouble finding out whether I violate the terms of my weight maintenance contract. The transparency of publishing my withings data to a Twitter account makes lying harder. On the other hand, the public disclosure of my weight is yet another form of accountability that might make it more likely that I will keep my weight in line.

By the way, as of this morning, the high bid in my auction was $110.

Ian Ayres is a professor of law and economics at Yale. Follow @freakonomics on Twitter.