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Doing the Right Thing for the Wrong Reason

By Mijael Feldman - GetXerpa
CEO and Founder


By Mijael Feldman | CEO and Founder - Thu, 02/23/2023 - 15:00

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The headline on  this post comes from an anecdote by  Dan Ariely, one of the most interesting people I’ve met, ever. If you haven’t heard of Dan, just Google his name or look for his TED talks and you’ll binge-watch all of his videos.

In his anecdote, he tells about an accident he had when he was a teenager, where 70% of his body had third-degree burns. He spent many years in a hospital and got a liver disease, which required him to take a medication three times a week that made him sick for 16 hours.

As he tells it, he decided to do something clever. Everytime he had to get the shot, he would go to the video store, rent some movies and head home to watch the movies with a blanket and a bucket for the side effects.

He replaced the pain and suffering from the medication with the pleasure of watching a movie. In this way, he could complete his treatment (something not many people often do).

Basically, he did the right thing (complying with the treatment) for the wrong reason (watching a movie).

You might think that this is nonsense. Being healthy should be the main motivation to complete treatment, not a movie. But aren’t saving, eating healthy, or doing exercise also important factors that we should do in order to live a long and healthy life?

The reason why we do the right thing for the wrong reason is that the benefits of these good actions are seen in the future, while the costs are immediate. This happens especially when the action and response are separated in time.

Saving money for your retirement is good for your future self, bad for your present self. You’ll have less money to eat out or buy new shoes.

Exercising early in the morning is good for your future self, bad for your present self who has to wake up, drive to the gym, work out, sweat, shower, and then go to work when a bed is all you want.

Don’t Break Your Streak

One amazing, and very simple technique is what some tech companies like Duolingo, Amazon Kindle and some training apps like Nike Training do: they incorporate streaks into their product.

Streaks is a behavioral design feature that counts how many consecutive days, weeks, or months you’ve been doing the desired behavior without stopping.

Duolingo shows a streak of how many consecutive days you’ve been taking a lesson.

Amazon Kindle shows you how many consecutive days you’ve read at least one page.

The Nike Training app shows how many consecutive weeks you’ve done at least one exercise.

I have to say, I’m a big fan (addict) of streaks. At the moment of writing this, I’m on 917 consecutive days of Duolingo to improve my Hebrew, 237 straight days reading and 2,785 days taking a selfie (so one day I can make that cool video of how I get old).


Yes, I’m very hooked on streaks.

Streaks are amazing because they make people do the right thing for the wrong reason. Most days, I don’t want to do a Hebrew lesson, but I don’t want to break my streak and start from zero again, so I take 5 minutes and do a lesson.

Eventually, the behavior starts to be part of your daily routine and going to bed without doing a Duolingo lesson or without reading feels as strange as going to sleep without brushing your teeth.

Some people help others just to get social recognition. Hey, I’m not judging; they’re helping people, even if it’s not a selfless act. Others may donate millions to build a hospital or museum, just to get their names on the building (or to get a tax deduction). This is what some call narcissistic altruism.

How to Use This for Your Benefit

Think about what you’re trying to accomplish (or what you want your customers to do) and try connecting the desired action with something you love, or maybe with something you hate or that hurts (like giving away money). If you don’t go to the gym, you have to give $10 to a friend who is going to enjoy some cold beers with your money.

Not everyone is going to move just to keep a number growing (my wife laughs every time I do something just to maintain the streak). 

At getxerpa, we help people improve their financial health by embedding PFM (personal financial management) tools in their banking app to help them save more and spend better. Streaks are a great way to encourage people to save weekly, even if it’s $1 just to keep their counter increasing.

The main idea is this. Big problems and your health and finances need more than just motivation because it fades away  You need something that makes you keep doing things even when you don’t feel like doing them. What’s the wrong reason depends on you.

Photo by:   Mijael Feldman

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