Are goal-setters goal-getters? The psychology behind behaviour change

 

Acclaimed behavioural economist Dan Ariely has spent years studying the motivations behind the choices we make from health and wellness to financial success. In his opinion, it often boils down to setting goals and the right kind of rewards.

What makes one person go to gym - and keep going – while another gives up and stays home? And why do some people continue to drive distracted by cellphones, knowing how risky it is to do so? It all comes down to behavioural economics, or the subtle art of understanding and affecting how people make decisions and take action.

Behavioural economics: the science of motivation

"When trying to develop healthy habits, we should focus on rewarding the behaviour instead of the outcome." This is according to Dan Ariely, the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University and the founder of The Center for Advanced Hindsight.

Professor Ariely's, in-depth research into behavioural economic has led him to believe that if you want people to live healthier lifestyles, you need to reward them for making healthier choices every day, as opposed to only rewarding them for achieving an ultimate big-picture goal.

Offering tangible rewards for making the right decisions

This is the reasoning behind the design of the Vitality Active Rewards programme, says Dr Craig Nossel, Head of Vitality Wellness. "Both Discovery Vitality and the Discovery Insure app use the principles of behavioural economics to ensure members' success, offering them tangible rewards for making the right decisions."

He explains: "Whether it's a smoothie voucher for going to gym or a fuel voucher for driving more responsibly, these rewards motivate members to make wiser, healthier choices – and ultimately, to live healthier lives."

To gain more insight into the psychology behind behaviour change, we chatted to Ariely - who has written three New York Times bestsellers (Dollars and Sense, Predictably Irrational, The Upside of Irrationality, and The Honest Truth about Dishonesty) around the topic.

Q: How does behavioural economics play a role in getting people more active?

When we think about physical activity, like running, it just seems like it's really going to be miserable and painful and unpleasant and so on. And so we don't engage in it. But there are two facts to this. The first is that once we're in the task, things change. We think less about the misery and we are able to enjoy the activity.

The second is that, over time, the unpleasant aspect of the activity becomes less while the enjoyable aspect increases. The goal is to get people to take the first step of their fitness journey and incentivise them for doing so.

Q: And in a driving environment? How can these principles be applied to encourage safer driving?

When it comes to driving, it is not about morality. Texting and driving, speeding, etc. do not get corrected because of a simple cost-benefit analysis. The threat of punishment only seems to work well when enforcement is nearly certain.

So given that it is hard to catch people, the carrot versus stick analogy is almost always more successful. A programme like Vitality Drive encourages members to drive safer with real-time feedback on key metrics of driving performance, and then rewards them when they drive better. This is a great carrot.

Q: What are some of the most insightful nudge experiments in the physical activity space?

We've done quite a few experiments through The Center for Advanced Hindsight, especially around exercise. I've looked at different strategies to motivate people to stick to their health goals by offering various incentives. These included social accountability (sharing progress on Facebook), a points system (depending on behaviour they could win or lose money) and app control (smartphone apps were blocked).

Results showed that loss aversion was an effective means of motivating participation (via losing points compared to gaining them), as was the app control experiments. The social accountability aspect was more effective when participants shared their progress with larger audiences (like their entire Facebook community versus a limited group).

Q: What role does technology play in the field of behavioural economics?

One of the main lessons in behavioural economics is that the environment matters, and technology is an amazing way to become part of a person's environment. If people know something, for example they know they should eat better, exercise more, take their medication on time or drive safely, but are not able to change their environment, the odds are that these lessons will not change their behaviour.

But if people can take their phone with them and this could be a reminder and act as a decision or nudge tool at the moment of temptation, the odds of improving behaviours are much, much higher. This is why in general I am a big fan of technology as it helps to shape people's environments.

Q: Where immediate gratification and short-term incentives don't seem to work, what additional reward structures could be successful?

One of the wonderful aspects of human nature is that we draw motivation from a wide range of aspects. Think about something like running a marathon - on the surface it looks like running a marathon is a miserable activity where people are suffering, but in reality, people get tremendous satisfaction. Although not much momentary satisfaction, they get another form of satisfaction.

Running marathons, climbing mountains, writing books and starting new businesses - they all show that we have this capacity to draw on a wide range of types of motivations, and in recent years we've been trying to add to these motivations. Things like pride, identity, ownership and a sense of progress add to the mix of the motivation equation in order to get people to behave in a way that would ultimately be good for them.

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