Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

The Motivating Effects of Temporal Landmarks: Evidence from the Field and Lab

Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

The Motivating Effects of Temporal Landmarks: Evidence from the Field and Lab

Article excerpt


People often set and strive for goals in their pursuit of a better self. For example, individuals may commit to health goals, such as eating less junk food or quitting smoking; others may set relationship goals, such as being more compassionate and attentive; and criminals may declare their intention to abstain from illegal behaviors. Despite their best intentions, however, individuals often find themselves committing undesirable actions in violation of their goals. Dieters may fail to resist temptation and eat a donut; spouses may fail to control their emotions and lash out at loved ones after a stressful work day; and formerly incarcerated individuals may fall prey to their old, unlawful habits. Failed attempts at following through on their good intentions may lead individuals to believe they are not capable of making positive changes. This resignation may foster a "what the hell" rationalization--the tendency to engage further in undesirable behaviors following a first step in the unwanted direction--and lock individuals with past failures in an undesired, negative cycle. (1)

What could free individuals from this cycle? Are there naturally arising points in time when people tend to feel untarnished by their past imperfections and become more determined than usual to tackle their goals? This article reviews recent work in the field of judgment and decision-making that examines (a) what types of external events can generate feelings of a fresh start, (b) how these events affect individuals' goal motivation, and (c) how insights about these external events can be capitalized to design "nudge" techniques that steer people towards future-oriented decisions. (2) Specifically, this article will first introduce the concept of "temporal landmarks" and discuss why temporal landmarks may feel like fresh starts and inspire the pursuit of self-improvement goals. Next, it will review studies that examine the relationship between temporal landmarks and goal motivation, including one that presents a field application of leveraging temporal landmarks to promote future-oriented decisions. It will conclude with a discussion about the potential implications of this stream of research for policymakers interested in designing nudge interventions.


The line of work reviewed in this article examines the effects of temporal landmarks on individuals' engagement in goal pursuit. (3) Temporal landmarks are distinct events that "stand in marked contrast to the seemingly unending stream of trivial and ordinary occurrences that happen to us everyday." (4) Temporal landmarks include personally meaningful life events such as birthdays, job changes, and being released from prison. In addition to events with personal meaning, temporal landmarks also include transition points on calendars, such as the beginning of the week, month, season, and year, as well as holidays. By demarcating the boundaries of adjacent time periods, temporal landmarks help people organize memories, experiences, and activities.

Dai and her colleagues propose that temporal landmarks can increase people's motivation to tackle their goals. (5) By delineating the passage of time and opening new temporal periods, temporal landmarks make people feel psychologically separated from their past selves. For example, a newlywed may feel different from her pre-wedding self, and a person who just turned thirty may feel that he is not the same person he was at twenty-nine. (6) This process allows people to relegate their failures and imperfections to the previous temporal period and their past selves, reducing bearing on their present selves. As a result, following temporal landmarks individuals may feel more confident in their ability to reach their goals and thus be more likely to take action. (7) Also, people may feel the urge to behave according to their new, more positive self-image (8) and act on their self-improvement goals. …

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