Graphic design illustrating two cellphones. One screen displays a heart with EKG symbols against a green and blue background while the other displays a meditating person with chakra points against a yellow background.

Competitive vs. Cooperative Health and Fitness Apps

Self-improvement is all the rage, and during the coronavirus lockdown, fitness and health app usage has spiked. This builds on the trend whereby Fitbit increased its active user base a staggering 441 percent from 2014–2019.

But with thousands of apps and technology choices available, are such technologies helping users achieve their self-improvement goals? And which types of apps work best?

Steffen Jahn, an instructor of marketing for the Lundquist College of Business’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, and researchers from the University of Goettingen examined these questions and more in a study in press for the International Journal of Research in Marketing.

In “Competition Versus Cooperation: How Technology-Facilitated Social Interdependence Initiates the Self-Improvement Chain,” the authors assess whether self-improvement technologies work best when they promote competitive tasks (who runs the most miles in a week) or cooperative tasks (all participants must run a combined 100 miles).

“While competitive tasks are often viewed skeptically because they put too much pressure on people, competition plays a vital role in sports motivation,” said Jahn. “The critical question therefore is ‘Will competition or cooperation be more effective in supporting self-improvement goal attainment?’”

In an experiment, Jahn and coauthors introduced participants to self-developed scenarios involving a fictitious crowdsourcing app called SelectedLinks. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three scenarios: competition, cooperation, or no social interdependence. Using the app, participants assigned to competition were instructed to select three articles that best fit a topic and were told they would be ranked on a leaderboard among other participants based on their selections. The cooperation group had a similar task, but were asked to cooperate in order to select the best three articles together. The participants with no social interaction served as the control and were not briefed about others or given feedback on their article selections. The results from this first part of the study found that both the competitive and cooperative group demonstrated increased engagement with the app compared to the control group, but the cooperative group showed the most engagement.

The authors then conducted a field study to replicate the results of the first experiment, as well as to investigate implications for performance and personal satisfaction and growth. This involved surveying actual users of six apps focused on education, fitness, and nutrition.

Based on their analysis of the survey data, the researchers found that there is no silver bullet for users seeking to attain all self-improvement goals at once. Competition was observed to be more effective in enhancing performance and personal growth. Cooperation, on the other hand, was better for continuously engaging users and increasing life satisfaction.

“If a user aims to maximize life satisfaction, developers should avoid technologies boasting competitive goal structures. Instead, apps that focus on cooperative tasks are more effective. Cooperative apps reduce people’s tendency to flaunt their own superiority and allay their fears of embarrassing themselves in front of others. This, in turn, likely promotes higher levels of self-esteem and mental health,” Jahn said.

The findings are also relevant to app users, policy makers and support organizations. For instance, users might look for an app that incorporates a variety of competitive and cooperative tasks, enabling them to tailor it to their goals and preferences.

“We all should think about which apps are best suited for our personal goals, instead of just downloading what’s trending,” said Jahn. “This contributes to making sports a positive force for transforming ourselves and society by improving individual and collective well-being.”

—Jim Engelhardt, Lundquist College Communications