Comparing four designs of social comparison feedback to increase physical activity


Physical activity is associated with many health benefits, including reduced rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, and obesity.  However, more than 50 percent of adults in the United States do not achieve enough regular physical activity to obtain these benefits. Many wellness programs and mobile apps use leaderboards to compare progress across individuals and groups, but the best way to design these social comparisons is unknown.


We designed a six-month randomized controlled trial to test multiple interventions that leveraged social comparison feedback and financial incentives to increase physical activity. We partnered with  Penn Medicine and enrolled 280 employees. All participants used their smartphones to track activity and formed teams of four. Each team was randomly assigned to one of four arms. Teams received social comparisons to either the 50 percentile (normative feedback) or the 75 percentile (top performers or leaderboard type feedback) and did or did not get forgiveness of their two lowest-performing days of the week. All arms were entered into a weekly regret lottery and only received winnings if their team's average daily step count met the step goal.


There was no significant difference between the four arms in either the intervention or follow-up period. Neither the reference point of the social comparison feedback (50 vs. 75 percentile) nor forgiveness made a significant difference in achieving the daily step goal. Future research could test variations of social comparison feedback without financial incentives.


National Institute on Aging, National Institutes of Health