Coin Operated World: Does the Biggest Loser Need Prize Money?

The Biggest Loser just wrapped up its ninth season.  The highly rated game show (or is it a reality show?) continues to expand viewership while slimming the waistlines of contestants.  I’ve personally been a witness to at least part of most seasons and I’m astounded that it has been on for so long.  It seems like only yesterday that the first overweight individuals signed up to spend three months at “the ranch” in an effort to lose massive amounts of body weight.  For those unfamiliar, here’s a short description of the show based on the original season (taken from thebiggestloser.com misspellings and all):

The first season of “The Biggest Loser” came in 2004, with a concept of making people loose as much weight as they can under the supervision of health experts and dietitians and not only they were helped to start a new healthy life they, the winner also got a grand prize money of $250,000.

The fascinating element to me is the prize money.  In that first season, the prize money was a huge part of the show.  I distinctly remember hearing about it constantly.  The contestants were frequently being asked to describe what they’d do with the money.  Players schemed with an end game of winning.  It was truly a competition.

This last season, I found myself asking my wife if there was still prize money.  There is; it’s just not a central theme of the show anymore, or so it seems.  Players occasionally mention “winning” but mostly it’s about staying on the show and continuing their workouts.  The group seems to pull for each other a lot more as well.  During one episode, two seasons ago, there was a race where the winner received a new car.  Toward the end of the race, the leaders stopped to allow one of their competitors to win because they all knew that he didn’t have a car.  Has that ever happened in game show history?!

And that got me thinking.  To what degree does intrinsic motivation drive behavior and performance compared to extrinsic motivation?

First, looking back, the concept of The Biggest Loser is a little strange to begin with.  Why is there prize money in the first place?  Is the hope for a better life with improved health NOT enough to get people on the show?  You can almost hear the pitch: 

Idea Guy:  How about this, we get a group of morbidly obese people and challenge them to a weight loss contest on a secluded ranch.

Producer: Why would they come?  Wouldn’t they rather stay at home and watch skinny people on TV?

Idea Guy: Well, we’ll give them top notch trainers and dieticians.  It’s a free trip to weight loss camp.

Producer: Have you ever heard a person say they wish they could go to fat camp and have it televised?

Idea Guy: Okay, what if we have prize money for the winner.  $100k.

Producer: Now you’re talking!  But it needs to be more if you want to get press.  Let’s make it $250k!  We’ll have overweight people putting on extra pounds so they can get on the show!

Second, looking at it now it’s obvious that the money doesn’t matter.  From what I can tell, most of the contestants are thoroughly convinced that being on this show is their only hope for getting the life they want.  That sounds ridiculous when you say it out loud.  Do they think The Biggest Loser is the only way to get training and diet management?  Or do they think being on TV keeps them motivated?

Regardless of that, my point is that money is no longer THE dominant motivator on the show, nor is it the only motivator in the workplace. Positive reinforcement, a strong support team and realistic goals are important drivers of human behavior, and should be considered when creating incentive compensation plans.