Using Behavioral Economics to Keep Resolutions

In 2010, David Cameron set up the “Behavioural Insights Team” (nicknamed the “Nudge Unit”) to use behavioral economics to “nudge” individuals to take superior decisions for themselves and society, e.g. save more, register as organ donors, or give to charity. It uses Randomized Control Trials (RCTs) to find the method that best works – similar to clinical trials in medicine. The establishment of BIT was inspired by Cameron reading the book “Nudge” by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, and Thaler (one of the pioneers of behavioural economics) was heavily involved. BIT had their annual “Behavioural Exchange” conference in Westminster in September 2015 and I was privileged to give a shortened version of my TEDx talk showing that social responsibility improves profit. But, the greater privilege was the chance to learn from the leading behavioral thinkers in the world, e.g. Thaler, Daniel Kahneman (Nobel Laureate), Dan Ariely (author of Predictably Irrational), Hal Varian (Chief Economist of Google). Over the next few blog posts I will share the leading insights of the conference.

Today I’ll start with what I thought to be the single most powerful idea, which I immediately started using in my own life. It’s from Dan Ariely, one of my favorite behavioral thinkers and giver of some of my very favorite TED talks (here is a blog post on my top 10 TED talks). It was in a session entitled “Nudging for International Development” – but the idea turned out to be one that you can apply just as much to individual habits as world economic problems.

Here’s the experiment he ran. He used a RCT to study the best way to persuade adults in a developing country to save money. Here are the different treatments he used:

1) A text message saying “Please try to save 100 shillings by the end of the week”

2) A text message signed by their kids saying “Hey Mom/Dad, please try  to save 100 shillings by the end of the week”. (The text still came from the experimenters – the parents knew that their kids don’t have cellphones – but signing it with their kids’ names prompted them to think of their kids when making the saving decision).

3) A 10% or 20% post-match – i.e. the experimenter gave you an extra 10% or 20% (depending on the treatment) of what you saved by the end of the week.

4) A 10% or 20% pre-match. Similar to the above, but you’re given the bonus at the start of the week, and it’s taken away from you if you fail to save 100 shillings. This is intended to exploit the “endowment effect”. People value something more highly if they have it than if they don’t, so giving them a reward and threatening to take it away may be more powerful than giving it at the end.

5) A gold coin. At the end of the day, you used the coin to scratch either a “Yes” or “No” box according to what you saved that day.

Dan asked the audience which they thought worked the best. The audience seemed split between 2), 4), and 5) (with a bit less suggesting 3). But, the coin turned out to be the most effective by a substantial margin. Here’s why. The coin scratch is much more salient and timely. The bonus pays off only at the end of the week. So, it encourages procrastination – you can spend today, and dupe yourself into thinking you’ll save tomorrow. The same goes for the text message – you think you’ll recover and still hit the weekly target. The coin scratch encourages you to save every day. And it “gamifies” saving. Adults feel they’ve achieved something when, at the end of the day, they scratch the “Yes” box. Note that, if they don’t save, they don’t simply do nothing – they’re asked to actively scratch the “No” box, i.e. admit to themselves that they’ve failed to save.

Although Dan didn’t explicitly draw the implications for our own lives (he only had 8 minutes), I thought that this is something we can instantly apply to develop good habits. That same evening, I created a spreadsheet with a list of things that I would like to achieve each day. Every day, at the end of the day, I have to put a tick or a cross according to whether I’ve achieved it. These goals will vary from person to person; here are a few of mine:

1) Did I end the day with zero emails in my inbox? Typically, I don’t, which leads to the inbox getting more and more cluttered over time. (Note, this doesn’t mean I reply to every email – that’s unrealistic – but I file them for future reply by a particular deadline. See an earlier blog post, “Time Management Tips to Improve Your Productivity“, for more on dealing with email).

2) Did I do athletics/music practice today? We often set resolutions to lose weight, or get better at a hobby. But, these are long-term goals; without daily accountability, they get deprioritized.

3) How many times did I check my iPhone that day? I have an app called Checky which records the number of times I check my phone. I try to get below 20 each day, to help me improve focus and remove distraction.

4) How much time did I spend on my iPhone that day? Tracked with an app called Moment.

It’s only been a few days, but I’m (positively) shocked by the effect it’s had. Can a silly little tick or cross – on a sheet of paper no-one else sees – really affect how grown adults behave? Can something intellectually equivalent to a gold star we give to kids make a big difference? Actually, yes. As emphasized by one of my favorite authors Stephen Covey (especially in his books “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and “First Things First”), people act differently when they keep score. You run faster if you’re wearing a Garmin, you row faster if the display shows your split time. No-one else sees these things but you, but they make a big difference. If you play a racket sport, you’ll play differently in an actual game versus just hitting about, even though the score has zero effect on your life. People (including me) invest time playing Fantasy Football even though you win absolutely nothing and the game doesn’t matter – because the score has meaning. So, why don’t we apply the idea of scorekeeping to things that do matter?

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