The promise of a gold star can get grade school students to read more and even take on extra-credit projects. But encouraging positive behavior in adults is more complex, right? Not necessarily, according to recent studies of a mobile phone application called UbiFit. The program, designed by researchers at Intel Research Seattle and the University of Washington, taps into the psychology of motivation by offering seemingly insignificant rewards—graphics of flowers—­that people end up striving to attain.

UbiFit gathers information from a small, wearable accelerometer to chart an individual’s daily physical activity, tracking various kinds of motion with little input or logging required. Depending on the user’s activity level, flowers of different sizes and colors begin to appear on his or her phone’s background display. In a study conducted this past winter, participants with this “garden” feature from UbiFit had more success main­taining their fitness regimens over the holidays than those whose software simply tracked activity without offering rewards.

Lead researcher Sunny Consolvo, a computer scientist at Intel, read up on classic psychology theories before starting the project. Consolvo sus­pected that presenting the data in a simple and subtle way would be effective, but even she was surprised by how much the garden graphic seemed to motivate people. “It even worked on me,” she recounts.

UbiFit is not yet available for purchase, but other devices exist that similarly use rewards and encouragement to tap into the psychology of motivation.