OPINION6 August 2012

The Olympics effect


With emotions running high, Crawford Hollingworth says the Olympics are a good time to put behavioural economics to work.

At times like this, we become more open to change. This applies not only to getting involved in sports or adopting a healthier lifestyle, but also to broader topics and social issues like money management, education and safe driving.

However, we must remember that our motivation levels will not stay high forever. Behavioural economics has shown that the average person has a natural tendency to procrastinate, suffers from poor self-control and rarely gets around to making their good intentions stick. Academics like George Loewenstein have identified what we call the hot-cold empathy gap, whereby we can have two different selves in different contexts and make totally different behavioural decisions depending on whether we are in an emotionally charged ‘hot state’ (as we are now) or a calm ‘cold state’.

There’s no doubt that overriding deeply embedded habits to adopt new behaviour requires time and effort. A study¹ conducted by Phillippa Lally and colleagues at the Health Behaviour Research Centre at University College London in 2009 found that creating and fixing a new habit took anywhere between 18 and 254 days, while the average was 70 days.

So although people may initially be highly motivated and open to change while in their hot states, we need to help them make the motivational impulse last well into the inevitable cold states.

Academic and behavioural expert Professor B J Fogg of Stanford University argues² that when our motivation is high there are three priorities we should follow to achieve lasting behavioural change.

  1. Do hard things that structure future behaviour, e.g. make a firm commitment such as entering a 10km race, booking a personal trainer, joining a club, signing up to a class, booking some healthy-eating cookery lessons, creating a joint pact with a friend, cutting up a credit card or setting up a default.
  2. Do hard things that reduce future barriers to the ideal behaviour. For example, if your goal is to eat more healthily, at times of high motivation you could buy, wash and cut up vegetables to keep in the fridge so it’s easy to make healthy meals during the week when your motivation may be flagging. Or, to make sure you train for your 10km race, you could take some gym clothes and shower things in to leave at work so it’s simple to pop out to the gym in your lunch break.
  3. Do hard things that increase your skills and abilities which will enable you to change your behaviour, e.g. learn a new sport or a language, read up on nutrition, improve your financial literacy. Getting real-time feedback can also help you learn and sharpen up your abilities – so technology such as a Garmin GPS watch or a Nike+ Fuelband will help you track your training sessions, and installing a money management app so you can see your activity in your bank account will increase your control of your finances.

So as the Olympics medal haul increases and the public become inspired by athletic feats, it would be great to see some innovative creativity from organisations, governments and companies aimed at harnessing motivation to ensure a real, lasting legacy from the London Olympics. There are already initiatives from the BBC and Sky Sports in their ‘Get Involved’ guides, which are putting a range of resources at people’s fingertips – but there’s so much more that could be achieved.

Crawford Hollingworth is a co-founder of The Behavioural Architects


1. In this study 96 volunteers chose an activity to carry out daily in the same context (for example ‘after breakfast’) for 12 weeks. They completed the self-report habit index (SRHI) each day and recorded whether they carried out the behaviour. The majority of participants, 82 of them, provided sufficient data for analysis, and increases in automaticity (calculated with a sub-set of SRHI items) were examined over the study period. “How are habits formed? Modelling habit formation in the real world” by P Lally, C H M Van Jaarsveld, H W W Potts, J Wardle, European Journal of Social Psychology ( 2010 ), Volume 1009 June 2009.

2. See B J Fogg’s video ‘The Motivation Wave’