OPINION9 January 2012

At breaking point?


If your new year’s resolutions are about to fail then perhaps it’s time to apply some behavioural economics on yourself.


Psychologists reckon that three out of four people who make a new year’s resolution will fail to keep them. So while you might have made it through the first week of 2012, you can be forgiven for seeking a little bit of help from behavioural economics to try to stay the course as we move into week two.

Play to commitment bias and loss aversion
Accept that your willpower is not perfect and make use of commitment devices (see our earlier article). The recently launched Gym-Pact is a great example of this. Set up by students following a class on behavioural economics, the service helps struggling gym users exercise regularly by asking them to make a commitment to go to the gym a number of days a week.

Recognising that most gym-goers suffer from time inconsistency and self-control problems (wanting to get fit… but not today) they use commitment bias and loss aversion (the money gym users have committed to their membership) to increase gym attendance. The clever part is that it only charges you when you miss appointments you committed yourself to. The organisation is not a gym in itself, but it partners with gyms based in the Boston area.

Change your environment or your context
Research has found that making healthy choices more widely available can very quickly change our behaviour. Jason Riis, a professor of marketing, and colleagues from the Harvard Business School tested two components of choice architecture in a large hospital cafeteria in Boston.

Phase One was a 3-month colour-coded labelling intervention (red=unhealthy; yellow=less healthy; green=healthy). Phase Two added a 3-month choice architecture intervention which increased the visibility and convenience of some healthy items. For example, they put bottles of water everywhere and rearranged snack displays.

Analysis of over one million cash register receipts revealed increases in the purchase of healthy products and decreases in the purchase of unhealthy products at both phases of the intervention. The largest changes were in the beverage category, where sales of unhealthy beverages decreased by 25% across both phases.

Make it a habit
The goal with any sort of behaviour change is to get to a point when you don’t even need to think about what you are doing differently – you just do it. But how do habits form, and how long does it take? Researchers looking into this topic say that for simple behaviours, habits can be formed in a matter of days. Other more complex activities may take a few months.

My Behavioural Architects colleagues and I recently took part in BJ Fogg’s 3 Tiny Habits programme – tagline: “When you know how to create tiny habits, you can change your life forever”. Fogg describes himself as a social scientist and runs the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University. He says there are three ways to change behaviour:

Option A: Have an epiphany
Option B: Change your context (what surrounds you)
Option C: Take baby steps

Fogg has some useful tips for getting behaviours to stick, such as introducing a new habit after an existing habit. In this way the existing habit will remind you to perform the new one. My colleague, whose tiny habit plan was to spend a few minutes on her balance board each day, chose to introduce the activity immediately after drying her hair each morning.

Another useful tip is to make the habit easy to perform – by placing your balance board next to your hairdryer, for instance. Finally, Fogg advises us to celebrate remembering to do the action, which signifies that the behaviour is becoming a habit.

Crawford Hollingworth is a founder of The Behavioural Architects