Desperate to hit their goals, WeChat users risk money—and public shaming—to motivate themselves

Money on the line. (Reuters/Phil Noble)
Money on the line. (Reuters/Phil Noble)
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If you want motivation to reach your personal goals, a healthy dose of public shaming and the fear of losing money can help.

These methods are being employed by a new kind of WeChat support group, sprouting online among Chinese audiences. WeChat is a popular social media app developed by the Chinese company Tencent that combines instant messaging, online publishing and mobile payments.

WeChat users already keep in touch with family and friends, make businesses deals, and shop online with the app. Now, they’ve hacked together a new form of self-improvement club by combining the platform’s chat function with its payments tools. Groups are coalescing around everything from rolling out of bed earlier, to reaching fitness goals, to reading and writing more.

One young woman named Lei, started a group called “Wake up early” and recruited eight friends to join her. Members agree to text a wake-up message everyday at 8am to the group chat. Those that fail to text are penalized, roughly 10 yuan ($1.50), which is then split among the other members.

The amount of money is small and there’s room for cheating. No one actually monitors if the members are going back to sleep after logging a message, but a promise to the group is like a special alarm clock that buzzes every morning threatening to empty members’ wallets.

There are stricter rules and more lofty goals in a group called “A thousand words a day, writing marathon” (link in Chinese) run by a veteran reporter-turned-blogger and commentator, Zhijie Huang. Participants put down 2,000 yuan ($300) and write 1,000 words a day for 30 days. Every morning at 8am they have to post their writing. One missed post or late submission and the money is distributed to everyone else. Participants who survive the sprint get their deposit back.

Huang recruited members of the group through posts on his blog. The first cohort was 20 people, and the second 17. “All people thought this was a mission impossible at the beginning, but at the end only one person fell behind.” Huang says.

The unique case of WeChat

What works wonders in these groups–making a commitment to someone else and incurring a cash penalty–has been proven by behavioral scientists to be effective. In one study, researchers found that an increase in posting weight-loss activities on Twitter correlates with a higher percentage of weight loss. Another proves that if your friend posts a lot about going on great runs on Facebook, you are more likely to pick up the habit. Paying the fees for an expensive gym can increase your workout rate.

Of course, online support groups are popular elsewhere. One of Fitbit’s strengths lies in its social feature. Creative types participating in the 100-Day Project are asked to create Instagram accounts and post their daily progress to increase accountability. The website 43 Things provides a platform for positive reinforcement for a varied set of personal goals.

These platforms, however, don’t combine a community feature with a failure tax. In an American weight-loss app called DietBet, users place bets on goals and plays games to compete with each other. As with WeChat, money from lost bets are distributed among winners. Unlike WeChat, however, DietBet doesn’t facilitate community building and is focused on a singular goal.

WeChat succeeds in legitimizing taking money from a friend through its payment feature, Red Envelope. Placing money in a red envelope as a gift is a Chinese tradition; red is a symbol of prosperity, and a gesture of joy or luck. Getting money from the red envelope is no longer a punishment to the failed but a gift from a friend.

Making or breaking a group

There is a catch to the effectiveness of these groups. Negative reinforcement in social network works best when the rules are evenly applied. Rules that are too flexible can devalue members’ contributions. Rules that are too strict can push members out.

Because the group leader bears responsibility for rule-making and has the ultimate power to change rules, it’s crucial that participants understand group rules and have a clear sense of the leader’s personal style before making a commitment to join the group.

Lei learned the art of rule-making by doing. Six months in, one female member proposed a new rule: female members should be entitled to a five-day break once a month when they get their period. The group chatted, and it wasn’t hard to reach consensus–there are six women and two men in the group.

Soon after, another female member asked, “Can I sell my period breaks if I don’t use them?” This time, Lei hesitated. She was troubled about how to determine the value of these breaks and worried about the risk of commoditizing them, so she asked the members to vote. The decision: the breaks would become communized, all members now get five-day break every month. So far, it’s been working well.