Hengchen Dai, Katherine L. Milkman, and Jason Riis of The Wharton School have done research that gives some science to a motivational device we have been debating about forever.
Is there value in a New Year’s Resolution?
In their research, they show that people are more likely to exercise after a birthday or the start of a week, month, year, or semester than during baseline when start dates where arbitrary. They suggest that “temporal landmarks” make it easier to engage in behavior we may have failed at in the past.
Katherine Milkman calls this the “fresh-start effect”: the energy and determination we feel when we’re able to wipe the slate clean. During these times, we have more motivation to work hard because we feel more distant from our past failures. Today you are a New You! Milkman states that “the effect seems to vary by how big the fresh-start moment is. The New Year’s effect is bigger and lasts longer than the Monday effect.”
In Behavioral Science, we call this an establishing operation or a stimulus, object, or event, that increases the reinforcing value of a given behavior. Meaning, if you choose a new goal at the start of the year, engaging in behaviors to hit those goals will be more reinforcing than during other, less meaningful times.
Now, the biggie here is that as time goes on, this effect will diminish so here is where the real Behavioral Science kicks in. We have some momentum and some excellent prompts and triggers for this New Year’s resolution but what happens week 3?
Milkman would have you believe that “you need to keep motivating people and keep looking for opportunities to grab their attention and give them the sense of empowerment they need to succeed.” That’s not really the whole story. She is talking about prompts and triggers (otherwise known as Antecedents). Prompts and triggers are great! BUT prompting and triggering is all they do. They don’t have a great track record of sustaining long-lasting behavioral patterns.
Note, Milkman states: “Everybody who studies goals has always known that there’s a lot of work to be done—unfortunately, we have yet to discover a one-off intervention that lasts forever.” That’s because she is only looking at antecedents here…so she’s right. Antecedents are not enough and that’s why interventions that lack full knowledge of Behavioral Science are faulty.
What would be more likely to create sustained change for you in the New Year is to pair the idea of the Fresh Start Effect with meaningful consequences. When you succeed at your goals make sure you eventually add rewards for yourself (Maybe a celebratory night out at the end of months 1 and 2?) until the naturally reinforcing consequences kick in (like eventual weight loss or increased energy and white teeth from no longer smoking).
Then if you REALLY want it to stick, make some check-ins with your Behavioral Scientist who will keep you on track for as long as you need!
I SEE YOU 2016. BRING IT!
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