Keeping those New Year’s Resolutions – useful advice from the Government’s ‘Nudge Unit’

I was going to write a blog posting on the behavioural background to keeping New Year’s Resolutions, however I have just seen this excellent blog posting from the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights Team – also more commonly known as the Nudge Unit after the Thaler and Sunstein book on the subject. This seems to cover most of the key strategies and is worth repeating:

1.       Framing incentives as losses rather than gains tends to be more impactful. For example, if your reward for losing 10kg is to go to a concert, buy the ticket now – it will be harder to give it up than to never have received it. Roland Fryer and co-authors conducted an experiment where teachers were given their performance pay up-front and asked to pay it back if they failed to meet their goals. They found that compared to standard performance related pay this increased results by the same amount as reducing class sizes by around 8 pupils.

2.       Commitment devices can help save, or lose weight (though gym membership may not be an effective commitment device).  Karlan and co-authors review a wide literature on commitment devices and find that they are often successful, even when they impose only psychological costs.

3.       Positive goals (“I will eat an apple every day”) are easier to keep than negative goals (“I will not eat ice cream”).  Adriaanse and co-authors randomly selected female participants who wanted to lose weight and found that those who set goals “If I want to snack, I will eat a healthy snack” were significantly more likely to succeed in weight loss, and less likely to snack than those who set goals like “If I want to snack, I will not eat an unhealthy snack”.

4.       Making a public commitment can help people stick to their targets. For example, when people make a public commitment to weight loss (by having their name and target displayed on a bulletin board), on average lost 20% more weight than those who made a private commitment.

5.       Making small, short-term goals can help reach larger, longer term goals. Townsend and Liu, conducted five experiments on people aiming to lose weight or save more money. They found that those who set goals that they perceived to be farther away were more likely to deviate from those goals by spending money or eating cookies.

I would also add collaborating with others to achieve your goal is more likely to generate social proof and social norms that can act as reinforcers of an intention. Further approaches to reinforcing behaviour change are covered in more detail in the Government’s own MINDSPACE Report.

Motivation is important too and those that have a more optimistic mindset, a wide social network and associated values may find it easier to sustain self-efficacy, stay the course and also suffer less ‘willpower depletion’ in carrying out some personal change.

In the end the trick is to use a range of approaches from above to create a new set of habits which can then act as personal ‘default’s that you carry out without thinking. I have previously written about some of the best approaches to create new ‘habits’ here.

Good luck with whatever ‘new year’s resolution’ behaviour change you are committing to.

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for The Campaign Company. If you want to see what your own primary values set is, why not take the simple Values Questionnaire here.

Leave a Reply