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?
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)
stickK ‘Set your goals and achieve them!’
- 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)?
- Give some examples of ways in which your own behaviour exhibits time inconsistency. Would it be accurate to describe this as ‘present bias’?
- Would you describe not sticking to New Year’s resolutions as ‘irrational behaviour’?
- 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?
- 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?
- Do you think it’s desirable that the advertising industry should employ psychologists and behavioural economists to help it achieve its goals?
Can behavioural economics be applied to the case of Sweden? The Swedish government is trying this out by changing government policy in a way that may encourage its residents to change their behaviour.
People in many countries in the world live in what is often called a ‘throwaway society’. If something breaks, it’s often easier and cheaper simply to get rid of it and buy a new one. But with changes in government policy, including VAT cuts on repairs to white goods, the objective is to encourage consumers to repair their goods, rather than buying new ones. This is also contributing towards the wider objective of sustainable consumption, which is being promoted by the Swedish government.
Per Bolund, who is one of Sweden’s six Green Ministers, spoke about this policy commenting that:
“Consumers are quite active in changing both what they buy and how they buy in Sweden … We believe that getting lower costs for labour is a big part in making it more rational to repair rather than just to buy cheap and throw away …If we don’t change the economic incentives the change will never come.”
Whether or not this policy works will take some time to see, but it’s certainly an interesting test of how changing incentives affect consumer behaviour. You can read about other examples of nudging in the following blog A nudge in the right direction?.
Waste not want not: Sweden to give tax breaks for repairs The Guardian, Richard Orange (19/9/16)
Can Sweden tackle the throwaway society? BBC News (20/9/16)
Trendy now, trash tomorrow Huffington Post, Kirsten Brodde (29/9/16)
Hong Kong needs a strategy quickly for dealing with waste South China Morning Post (27/9/16)
- If VAT on repairs falls, how will this affect consumer behaviour?
- Do you think there would be an income and a substitution effect from this change in government policy? What would they be?
- How is the Swedish government using incentives to change consumer behaviour?
- If it is cheaper to buy a new white good, then is it rational to buy a new one rather than repair an existing one?
- How effective do you think this policy would be in encouraging consumers to change their behaviour?
- Find some other examples of how people might be nudged to behave in ways that are in their own interest or that of society.
Behavioural economists study how people’s buying, selling and other behaviour responds to various incentives and social situations. They don’t accept the simplistic notion that people are always rational maximisers. As the Livemint article below states, “According to behavioural economists, the human brain neither has the time nor the ability to process all the information involved in decision making, as assumed by the rational model.” Instead, rationality is bounded: people use simple rules of thumb in making decisions – rules they have developed over time in the light of experience.
So can people’s behaviour be altered by understanding their limited rationality? Advertisers are only too well aware of a number of psychological ‘tricks’ to change people’s purchasing behaviour. For example, wanting to be approved of by your friends is used by advertisers to sell various fashion products and toiletries. Often, people need only a relatively small ‘nudge’ to change the way they behave.
And it is not just advertisers who are using the insights of behavioural economics. Governments are increasingly trying to find ways of nudging people to behave in ways that are better for themselves or for society.
In 2010, David Cameron set up a ‘Nudge Unit’, formally know as ‘The Behavioural Insights Team‘. It has produced a number of academic papers on topics as diverse as tax compliance, incentives for university attendance, charitable giving in the workplace and using SMS reminders to reduce missed hospital appointments. The academic evidence can then be use as the basis for policy.
Another nudge unit has been set up in Australia (see second article below). The USA, Singapore and various other countries are increasingly using the insights of behavioural economics to devise policy to affect human behaviour.
Two recent pieces of work by the UK team concern ways of discouraging doctors from over-prescribing antibiotics and using encouraging text messages to FE students to reduce dropout rates. Another nudge has been used by the tax authorities (HMRC) who have been sending out texts to remind people to pay their taxes on time and to make them aware that they are being monitored. The message read, “Most people pay on time to avoid penalties”.
The articles below look at these recent initiatives and how human behaviour can be changed in a relatively low-cost way. In most cases this involves a simple nudge.
Nudge-unit trials reveal best ways to prod people Sydney Morning Herald, Nick Miller (29/8/15)
Government ‘nudge unit’ to attempt to change people’s behaviours Sydney Morning Herald, Nick Miller (15/9/16)
New frontiers of human behaviour Livemint, Biju Dominic (15/9/16)
Doctors ‘nudged’ into prescribing far fewer antibiotics New Scientist (15/9/16)
GPs handing out fewer antibiotics after warning of over-prescribing, says study BT (15/9/16)
Study of colleges shows ‘encouraging’ texts dramatically cut dropout rates FE Week, Paul Offord (22/7/15)
The text messages getting teenagers better grades BBC Today Programme, David Halpern and Fiona Morey (15/9/16)
Ping! Pay your tax now or face a penalty. HMRC sends out ‘threatening’ SMS texts to taxpayers The Telegraph, Christopher Hope (15/9/16)
Publications of Behavioural Insights Team
Publications list BIT
The Behavioural Insights Team’s Update Report: 2015–16: overview BIT (15/9/16)
The Behavioural Insights Team’s Update Report: 2015–16 BIT (15/9/16)
- Explain what is meant by bounded rationality.
- Give some examples from your own behaviour of decisions made using rules of thumb.
- Should we abandon models based on the assumption of rational maximising behaviour (e.g. attempts to maximise consumer surplus or to maximise profit)?
- Find out some other examples of how people might be nudged to behave in ways that are in their own interest or that of society.
- How might people be nudged to eat more healthily or to give up smoking?
- To what extent can financial incentives, such as taxes, fines, grants or subsidies be regarded nudging? Explain.
- Why, do you think, the message by an Australian hospital, “if you attend, the hospital will not lose the $125 we lose when a patient does not turn up” was successful in reducing missed appointments by 20%, while the message, “if you do not attend, the hospital loses $125” was not as effective?
Economics is about choices. But how can people be persuaded to make healthy choices, or socially responsible or environmentally friendly choices? Behavioural economists have studied how people can be ‘nudged’ into changing their behaviour. One version of nudge theory is ‘fun theory’. This studies how people can be persuaded into doing desirable things by making it fun to do so.
I came across the first video below a couple of days ago. It looks at a highly successful experiment at the Odenplan underground station in Stockholm to persuade people to make the healthy choice of using the stairs rather than the escalator. It made doing so fun. The stairs were turned into a musical keyboard, complete with sound. Each stair plays a piano note corresponding to its piano key each time someone treads on it. As you go up the stairs you play an ascending scale.
After installing the musical staircase, 66% more people than normal chose the stairs over the escalator.
The fun theory initiative is sponsored by Volkswagen. The Fun Theory website is ‘dedicated to the thought that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better. Be it for yourself, for the environment, or for something entirely different, the only thing that matters is that it’s change for the better.’
VW held a competition in 2009 to encourage people to invent fun products designed to change people’s behaviour. There were over 700 entries and you can see them listed on the site. The 13 finalists included the musical staircase, traffic lights with quiz questions on the red, a Connect Four beer crate, fun tram tickets (giving entry to an instant-win lottery), a pinball exercise machine, a speed camera lottery where a winner is chosen from those abiding by the speed limit, a jukebox rubbish bin (which plays when people add rubbish), a one-armed vending machine, a fun doormat, car safety belts linked to a car’s entertainment system, car safety belt with a gaming screen which turns on when buckled, a bottle bank arcade system and the world’s deepest bin (or at least one which sounds as if it is). The winner was the speed camera lottery.
The fun theory site
Fun theory videos
Piano Staircase – Odenplan, Stockholm (on Vimeo)
The Speed Camera Lottery (on VIMP.com, Kevin Richardson)
Garbage Jukebox (on YouTube)
The World’s Deepest Bin (on Vimeo)
Bottle Bank Arcade (on YouTube)
- Does fun theory rely on rational choices?
- Other than through having fun, how else may people be nudged into changing their behaviour?
- Go through some of the entries to the Fun Theory Award and choose three that you particularly like. Explain why.
- Invent your own fun theory product. You might do this by discussing it groups and perhaps having a group competition.
In his Budget on March 19, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced fundamental changes to the way people access their pensions. Previously, many people with pension savings were forced to buy an annuity. These pay a set amount of income per month from retirement for the remainder of a person’s life.
But, with annuity rates (along with other interest rates) being at historically low levels, many pensioners have struggled to make ends meet. Even those whose pension pots did not require them to buy an annuity were limited in the amount they could withdraw each year unless they had other guaranteed income of over £20,000.
Now pensioners will no longer be required to buy an annuity and they will have much greater flexibility in accessing their pensions. As the Treasury website states:
This means that people can choose how they access their defined contribution pension savings; for example they could take all their pension savings as a lump sum, draw them down over time, or buy an annuity.
While many have greeted the news as a liberation of the pensions market, there is also the worry that this has created a moral hazard. When people retire, will they be tempted to blow their savings on foreign travel, a new car or other luxuries? And then, when their pension pot has dwindled and their health is failing, will they then be forced to rely on the state to fund their care?
But even if pensioners resist the urge to go on an immediate spending spree, there are still large risks in giving people the freedom to spend their pension savings as they choose. As the Scotsman article below states:
The risks are all too obvious. Behaviour will change. People who no longer have to buy an annuity will not do so but will then be left with a pile of cash. What to do with it? Spend it? Invest it? There are many new risky choices. But the biggest of all can be summed up in one fact: when we retire our life expectancy continues to grow. For every day we live after 65 it increases by six and a half hours. That’s right – an extra two-and-a-half years every decade.
The glory of an annuity is it pays you an income for every year you live – no matter how long. The problem with cash is that it runs out. Already the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has said that the reform ‘depends on highly uncertain behavioural assumptions about when people take the money’. And that ‘there is a market failure here. There will be losers from this policy’.
We do not have perfect knowledge about how long we will live or even how long we can be expected to live given our circumstances. Many people are likely to suffer from a form of myopia that makes them blind to the future: “We’re likely to be dead before the money has run out”; or “Let’s enjoy ourselves now while we still can”; or “We’ll worry about the future when it comes”.
The point is that there are various market failings in the market for pensions and savings. Will the decisions of the Chancellor have made them better or worse?
Pension shakeup in budget leaves £14bn annuities industry reeling The Guardian, Patrick Collinson (20/3/14)
Chancellor vows to scrap compulsory annuities in pensions overhaul The Guardian, Patrick Collinson and Harriet Meyer (19/3/14)
Labour backs principle of George Osborne’s pension shakeup The Guardian, Rowena Mason (23/3/14)
Osborne’s pensions overhaul may mean there is little left for future rainy days The Guardian, Phillip Inman (24/3/14)
Let’s celebrate the Chancellor’s bravery on pensions – now perhaps the Government can tackle other mighty vested interests Independent on Sunday, Mary Dejevsky (23/3/14)
A vote-buying Budget The Scotsman, John McTernan (21/3/14)
L&G warns on mis-selling risks of pension changes The Telegraph, Alistair Osborne (26/3/14)
Budget 2014: Pension firms stabilise after £5 billion sell off Interactive Investor, Ceri Jones (20/3/14)
Budget 2014: pensions and saving policies Institute for Fiscal Studies, Carl Emmerson (20/3/14)
Budget 2014: documents HM Treasury (March 2014)
Freedom and choice in pensions HM Treasury (March 2014)
- What market failures are there in the market for pensions?
- To what extent will the new measures help to tackle the existing market failures in the pension industry?
- Explain the concept of moral hazard. To what extent will the new pension arrangements create a moral hazard?
- Who will be the losers from the new arrangements?
- Assume that you have a choice of how much to pay into a pension scheme. What is likely to determine how much you will choose to pay?