Off-Track with Your New Year's Resolutions? Here Are Some Tips from Behavioral Economics

By Perry, Susan | MinnPost.com, January 6, 2014 | Go to article overview

Off-Track with Your New Year's Resolutions? Here Are Some Tips from Behavioral Economics


Perry, Susan, MinnPost.com


We're a week into 2014. How are your health-related New Year's resolutions holding up?

If you're already off-track, you may want to consider some tips from the field of behavioral economics. In recent decades, research has shown that putting our money or our reputation (ego?) on the line makes it much more likely that we'll achieve our goals, including those for improving our health.

Last week, several behavior economists offered lists of their favorite tips. If you're having difficulty sticking with your resolutions, you may want to peruse those lists for ideas.

Fruit and friends

For example, Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University, includes these two recommendations in his list for Time magazine:

Order an annual subscription to the Fruit Guy. By committing to a weekly service that delivers fresh fruit, we make having healthy food a reality. This approach has the added sweet side effect of urgency. Every week when the fruit is delivered, we know all too well that if we fail to consume the fruit in the next week, more of it will show up and we will have to waste the unused fruit. And if you like real adventures, what about a more extreme version of this? A weekly subscription to the Kale Guy?

Working out every day takes a lot of ongoing willpower. Joining a gym is nice but still requires the daily decision to go to the gym. Instead, a better approach is to set up recurring weekly "meetings" with friends or co-workers for workouts. This kind of social obligation is likely to hold you, and them, accountable to show up, and once you have shown up, you might as well start sweating.

The importance of social support for following through on health goals is also emphasized in a New York Times commentary by Dr. Kevin Volpp and Katherine Milkman, who teach behavioral economics at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

"You can achieve more by pursuing goals with the help of a mentor," they write. "In a study co-authored by one of us and reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine, patients with poorly controlled diabetes were paired with patients who previously had poorly controlled diabetes but had since achieved mastery over their disease. The improvements in glycemic control achieved by those mentored in this study were larger than those produced by many leading drugs."

Financial incentives

Volpp and Milkman also recommend that you put some money on the line:

In an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a team of researchers (including one of us) reported that over the course of a 16-week study, individuals who were given the opportunity to set aside money for forfeiture if they failed to lose weight lost 14 pounds more than those in a control group. …

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