2 Hacks to Reinforce Willpower

Two new research papers show how people can boost their willpower when trying to change behaviour.

2 min read

The guys over at Freakonomics (Don’t follow them? You should do…) recently published a podcast highlighting two new research papers that each describe a way of trying to help or support people’s willpower when trying to change behaviour.

The first is called temptation bundling. It involves combining something we really like – such as watching a favourite TV show, or listening to a particular audio-book - with something we are more ambivalent about - like going to the gym.

This is essentially a variation on something that we cover in the book called a commitment device. These are mini-contracts that we make to try and incentivize ourselves or other people to behave in certain ways. These contracts say, ‘do this, and you’ll get that reward’; or they may say, ‘fail to do this, and you need pay that forfeit’. For example, we might reward ourselves for reading a book by eating a chocolate bar. Or we may penalize ourselves for failing to read it by paying an amount to charity.

What is different about temptation bundling is that we are outing the two things together – at the same time – rather than making one of them the consequence of the other.

The second willpower hack is called the fresh start effect. It shows that people are more likely to tackle their goals following particular temporal landmarks – such as the start of a new week, month or year, or a birthday or holiday. The researchers suggest that these landmarks may work by signaling the start of a kind of new mental accounting period, which “induce people to take a big-picture view of their lives, and thus motivate aspirational behaviors.”

So…if you feel someone’s willpower needs a little support (and hey, whose doesn’t?), try giving these a go.

© Nik Kinley, 2024

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