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How behavioural economics can help you stick to New Year’s resolutions

Many or us make New Year’s resolutions: going on a diet, doing exercise, spending more time studying. But few people stick to them, even though they say they would like to. So how can people be motivated to keep to their resolutions? Well, the experiments of behavioural economists provide a number of insights into the problem. They also suggest various incentives that can be used to motivate people to stick to their plans.

Central to the problem is that people have ‘time inconsistency’. They put a higher weight on the benefits of things that are good for them in the future and less weight on these benefits when they have to act now. You might strongly believe that going to the gym is good for you and plan to go next Monday. But when Monday comes, you can’t face it.

Another part of the time inconsistency problem is the relatively high weighting given to short-term gratification – eating chocolates, watching TV, spending time on social media, staying in bed. When thinking about whether you would like to do these things in, say, a couple of days’ time, you put a low weight on the pleasures. But thinking about doing them right now, you put a much higher weight on them. As the well-known saying goes, ‘Hard work often pays off after time, but laziness pays off now’.

So how can people be motivated to stick to their resolutions? Behavioural economists have studied various systems of incentives to see what works. Some of the findings are as follows:

•  People are generally loss averse. To get us to stick to New Year’s resolutions, we could devise a system of penalties for breaking them, such as paying 20p each time you swear!
•  Given people’s time inconsistency, devising a system whereby you get treats after doing something you feel is good for you: e.g. watching TV for 30 minutes after you’ve done an hour’s revision. Rewards should follow effort, not precede them.
•  Having simple clear goals. Thus rather than merely saying ‘I’ll eat less’, you devise a meal plan with menus that meet calorie and other dietary goals. Rather than saying, ‘I’ll exercise more’, you commit to going to the gym at specific times each week and doing a specific amount of each exercise.
•  Ritualising. This is where you devise a regime that is feasible to stick to. For example, you could always write a shopping list to meet your dietary goals and then only buy what’s on that list; or you and your flatmates could have a rota for household chores.
•  Social reinforcement. This is where people have a joint plan and help each other stick to it, such as going to the gym at specific times with a friend or group of friends, or joining a support group (e.g. to lose weight, or give up drinking or smoking).
•  Avoiding temptation. For example, if you want to give up chocolate, don’t have any in the house.
•  Using praise rather than criticism. People generally respond better to positive incentives than negative ones.

Behavioural economists test these different incentive mechanisms to see what works best and then to see how they can be refined. The testing could be done experimentally, with volunteers being given different incentives and seeing how they respond. Alternatively, data could be collected on the effects of different incentive mechanisms that people have actually used, whether at home or at work.

The advertising and marketing industry analyses consumer trends and how people respond to pricing, quality, display, packaging, advertising, etc. They want to understand human behaviour so that they can ‘direct’ it in their favour of their clients. Governments too are keen to find ways of encouraging people to do more of things that are good for them and less of things that are bad.

The UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team looks at ways people can be ‘nudged’ into changing their behaviour, see the blog A nudge in the right direction?

But back to New Year’s resolutions, have you made any? And, if so, have you thought about how you might stick to them? Have you thought about the incentives?

Podcast
Dan Ariely talks “Payoff” WUNC 91.5: North Carolina Public Radio, Dan Ariely talks to Frank Stasio (3/1/17)

Articles and blogs
50 New Year’s Resolution Ideas and how to Achieve Each of Them Lifehack, Ivan Dimitrijevic (31/12/16)
5 New Year’s Resolutions You Can Keep (With The Help Of Behavioral Science Research) Forbes, Carmen Nobel (3/1/17)
The science behind keeping your New Year’s resolutions BT, SNAP PA (30/12/15)
The Guardian view on New Year resolutions: fitter, happier, more productive The Guardian, Editorial (3/1/17)
The Behavioral Economics of Your New Year’s Resolutions The Daily Beast, Uri Gneezy (5/1/14)
The psychology of New Year’s resolution The Conversation, Mark Griffiths (1/1/16)
Apply Behavioral Economics for a Better New Year Wharton Blog Network, William Hartje (16/1/14)
The Kardashians Can Help Your New Year’s Resolutions Huffington Post, John Beeby (29/12/16)
Using economics to score with New Year resolutions The Hindu, Venky Vembu (4/1/17)
Be It Resolved The New York Times, John Tierney (5/1/12)

Goal-setting site
stickK ‘Set your goals and achieve them!’

Questions

  1. Explain what is meant by time inconsistent behaviour. Is this the same as giving future costs and benefits a lower weighting than present ones (and hence having to discount future costs and benefits)?
  2. Give some examples of ways in which your own behaviour exhibits time inconsistency. Would it be accurate to describe this as ‘present bias’?
  3. Would you describe not sticking to New Year’s resolutions as ‘irrational behaviour’?
  4. Have you made any New Year’s resolutions, or do you have any plans to achieve goals? Could you alter your own personal incentives and, if so, how, to make it more likely that you will stick to your resolutions/goals?
  5. Give some examples of ways in which the government could ‘nudge’ us to behave in ways that were more in our own individual interests or those of society or the environment?
  6. Do you think it’s desirable that the advertising industry should employ psychologists and behavioural economists to help it achieve its goals?
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