What Gym Memberships Can Teach Us About Self-Control

Membership renewal strategies rely on understanding how people self-regulate.

It happens every year: We tell ourselves this time we’re going to eat healthier, save money, and get to the gym.

But a few months later, those plans have failed to materialize.

What’s going wrong? The mismatch between what people want to achieve and what they actually do is far from unusual. It’s a problem so common, in fact, that it’s drawn the attention of researchers like Raghunath Rao, associate professor of marketing at Texas McCombs. He examined the subject in his paper, “Marketing Self-Improvement Programs for Self-Signaling Consumers.” Rao recently explained why those of us with good intentions still have trouble sticking to our commitments.

Plenty of us can identify with the struggle to maintain self-control. But what makes researchers interested in the topic?

The idea that self-control failures are real, big, and consequential is getting traction. A lot of problems — whether it’s obesity, teenage pregnancies, or overwhelming household debt — partly have their origins in our inability to self-regulate. This has real consequences at the economic level.

In studying this issue, you’ve looked at the financial models of gyms and how they factor in personal behavior.

A lot of people get very excited when they join health clubs and gyms. Before they join, they might be planning to go three times a week, but the data shows that they typically go maybe once a week — or even less than that. A significant fraction of people quit within a month or so, or if people stay with the plan for a long time, their usage rates are relatively low.

There’s this mismatch between what people want to do and what they end up doing. That has attracted the attention of scholars, because it has implications for how gyms set up their pricing. For example, let’s say somebody’s planning to go to the gym three times a week and a gym offers them a plan that is $200 a year. The customer makes a calculation that they’ll go to the gym close to 160 times, so on average, they’re paying a little over a dollar per visit, which looks like a very good deal. But it actually doesn’t turn out that way.

Gyms are very smart. They offer deals where they extract money from you up front. They ask for a fixed amount, which looks very attractive to you. They never say, “Come to my gym and pay $5 or $10 every time,” but in effect that’s what ends up happening. So that’s the motivation researchers have — this discrepancy between people’s intended and actual behavior.

You’ve examined this topic in your research. What aspect of gym membership did you focus on?

We looked at this idea of self-signaling. The basic idea is that when I go to a gym, I might be making my decision whether to renew my membership based on my past behavior.

In the past few months, how many times have I gone to the gym? I use that data to think about whether I should renew my membership or not. Past behavior serves as a signal of your self-control. That’s the core of what we’re trying to study.

What did you learn?

Because a firm knows that you are going to look back in order to make your decision about whether to renew, they have an incentive to facilitate your infrequent gym use. Because if you don’t visit, they know that you’re not going to renew. Somebody who never goes to the gym is a very attractive customer, because they’re just paying money for nothing, but there’s also a danger that person is more likely to quit.

So they might join for one year, but when it’s time to renew, they’ll realize they barely went to the gym?

Yes, there’s this trade-off that firms face. They want people to use the gym less often, but not so infrequently that they quit. Many gyms have these mixed plans: They charge a moderate fixed fee and there are added fees for special classes, such as yoga.

Gyms — and the self-improvement industry in general — charge a smaller amount for special classes. That way, people actually end up doing these activities. So I look back and say, “I went to this yoga class 15 times last year.” That motivates me to re-enroll in the program.

I would think the reverse happens, that someone who’s already visiting their gym is discouraged by the added cost of attending a yoga class.

That’s a very good point. In many cases, gyms outsource these classes and they have to recover the cost. Gyms might even lose money on these classes, but you can probably get that margin back through a higher upfront fee. That fee is subsidizing what you’re offering as an add-on. That’s one of the big points that we make. This also speaks to all these frills gyms and many specialized self-improvement plans offer, which motivate people to go more often.

What makes changing one’s behavior — and getting to the gym more often — so difficult?

It’s hard for people to make an assessment of their self-control. If you ask an alcoholic if they have a drinking problem, they might say, “I don’t have a problem, I just enjoy a few drinks.” But if you look at their behavior, a lot of bad things are going on. Smart people don’t just talk about their problem; they look at their own data from yesterday or the last few months and use that as an anchor to think about whether an intervention is helping or not.

From the perspective of the self-improvement industry, it’s in their own interest that people are moderately successful in their endeavors. If they’re not, people are not going to find these programs beneficial and they’re likely to quit. But at the same time, they also make an enormous amount of profit by people not fully utilizing these programs, so there’s a sweet spot.

What are some other examples of people’s failures to self-regulate?

In my classes, I often give students about three weeks to finish their assignments. But almost all the assignments get turned in during the last four or five hours. You might say, “Well, at least they’re finishing their assignments. What’s the problem?” The problem is when you start doing these things in the last five hours the quality of your work suffers.

Associate Professor Raghunath Rao studied how gym membership plans consider members’ self-signaling

If they had spent two or three days on the assignment, they would not have made these mistakes. We all have this tendency to keep on postponing things. In organizations, these mistakes happen in R&D projects that people have a tendency to postpone.

People are not completely ignorant about these problems; they have some awareness. It’s not the first time students have submitted their assignments at the last minute. They’ve done it many times in the past. They are still not able to self-regulate so they need a guiding hand. In our paper, this guiding hand comes from businesses, like gyms, because they have an incentive for people to at least be moderately successful in their endeavors.

Can you identify the type of student who doesn’t wait until the last minute?

You can easily sort those people out. There are 15 to 20 percent who do their work well ahead of the deadline. I don’t want to stereotype, but these are also the people who pre-read what’s going to be covered in class, they are more active in discussions. It’s partly a trait, but not all hope is lost. The sense that these 20 percent are going to be more successful is a pessimistic view I don’t subscribe to. I think there are interventions, mechanisms, and self-regulation strategies that can help people. It’s just that they need a push to adopt these strategies.

So if I want to work out every Tuesday, should I ask a friend to contact me Wednesday morning to make sure I exercised?

You can even say, “Check on me, and if I haven’t done it by Wednesday or Thursday, I’m going to buy you coffee.” So it’s not just peer pressure, but peer pressure with some consequences. That typically works well.

What else have you learned from your research?

One of the interesting observations was that short-term danger sometimes motivates people not to excessively consume vice goods. For example, let’s say I’m going to a party and have the option of getting a designated driver. Some people actually don’t want to find a designated driver in advance because they know if they drink too much they might get into an accident. The danger itself acts as a self-disciplining device. Of course, that only works if you have some control over your impulses and sophistication about how you’re going to behave.

Since you study self-regulation, do you also face these challenges?

We all do. It’s not that we study these things so we’re perfect. That’s the point, right? Sometimes even if we have an awareness of these issues, we are also fall prey to temptations.

Marketing Self-Improvement Programs for Self-Signaling Consumers” was published on Oct. 29, 2018 in Marketing Science.

Story by Jeremy M. Simon