Well-intentioned people often start the new calendar year with a long list of personal resolutions, only to abandon most of them before Valentine’s Day. Alas, it’s a lot easier to make New Year’s resolutions than to keep them. That’s one good reason to explore the work of behavioral scientists, who conduct sociological and psychological studies to get a true handle on what motivates people to do what they do—and what motivates them to do better. With that, we share some well-researched tips—based on the findings of behavioral economists at Harvard Business School—to help our readers keep some of the common contracts people sign with themselves each year.
If you have resolved to eat healthier, try ordering your groceries a week in advance of delivery.
Internet delivery services make it all too easy to give into food cravings with the click of a mouse. The next time you’re tempted to order and devour a pepperoni pizza at midnight, try tackling next week’s grocery list instead.
Researchers from Harvard Business School and the Analyst Institute evaluated a year’s worth of customer orders from an online grocer. Their goal: to find out if customers chose healthier food if they ordered it a week in advance rather than a day in advance of delivery.
Indeed, the data showed that customers tended to order a higher percentage of healthy items (like leafy greens) and a lower percentage of unhealthy items (like candy bars) the further in advance they placed an order.
If you have resolved to exercise more, try ignoring what your peers are doing.
Harvard Business School’s Leslie John and Michael Norton conducted a field experiment in which employees at a large corporation had the opportunity to exercise on slow-moving treadmills attached to standing desks. The goal of the employees: To get in shape while doing their everyday work. The goal of the research: to find out whether people are more likely to work out if they know whether their peers are working out, too.
The researchers assigned the employees to one of three conditions. Some employees had access only to data about their own treadmill usage (the solo condition); some were told about the treadmill usage of one coworker (the duo condition); and some had access to the usage of four coworkers (the quintet condition).
On average, the results showed that those in the solo condition spent more time on their walk-stations during the six-month period than those in the duo or quintet conditions. The reason: If they knew one of their co-workers was avoiding exercise, they’d be tempted to slack too. No matter if they knew that some of their other peers were working out constantly.
“People’s activity levels tended to converge to the lowest-performing members of their groups,” the researchers write. “In summary, our results suggest that the mere provision of information on peer health behaviors can have perverse effects on one’s health behavior.”
If you have resolved to save more money for retirement… then keep on ignoring what your peers are doing.
John Beshears and colleagues looked at whether employees would contribute more money to their individual 401K plans if they learned that their peers were doing so. On the contrary, the researchers found that learning about their colleagues’ admirable savings plans made people less likely to save for retirement. Instead of being motivated by their peers’ admirable investment activity, they were demoralized.
As writer Christian Camerota explains in an article about the research: “Showing employees information about their peers’ investments actually discouraged them from making or increasing their own investments. In one instance, peer information reduced the likelihood of participation by more than a third. This discouragement, Beshears said, stemmed from employees being reminded that they were already behind in their own investment efforts.”
If you have resolved to heal your broken heart, try performing a ritual.
Through a series of experiments, behavioral scientists Michael Norton and Francesca Gino found that rituals alleviate and reduce grief after a devastating emotional loss—even among people who don’t inherently believe in the efficacy of rituals. In short, people who performed rituals after a loss recovered more quickly than those who didn’t. Those rituals need not be elaborate or public; they just need to be deliberate.
In the course of their research, Norton and Gino asked subjects to recall rituals they had performed after suffering a loss. They were surprised to discover that the majority of these rituals were neither religious nor communal, but rather personal and private. “One woman wrote about gathering all the pictures of her and her ex-boyfriend, taking them to the park were they met, and tearing them up,” Norton recalled in an interview with Working Knowledge. “She made a point of saying, ‘even the ones where I looked good.’”
And if you have resolved not to obsess over resolutions this year, behavioral science supports you.
Are you giving yourself a break when it comes to meeting your goals this year? Congratulations! That’s a wise choice, according to a team of behavioral scientists who studied the systematic harm that can result from overeager goal-setting at work.
“We identify specific side effects associated with goal setting, including a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation,” write Lisa D. Ordóñez, Maurice E. Schweitzer, Adam D. Galinsky, and Max H. Bazerman. “Rather than dispensing goal setting as a benign, over-the-counter treatment for motivation, managers and scholars need to conceptualize goal setting as a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision. We offer a warning label to accompany the practice of setting goals.”