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 getting the right kind of rewards.
What makes one person go to gym - and keep going - while another gives up and stays home? Why are some of us able to achieve monumental success, while others can't get off the couch? It all comes down to behavioural economics, or the subtle art of understanding and affecting how we make decisions and take action
Dan Ariely, the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioural Economics at Duke University and the founder of The Center for Advanced Hindsight says: “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 from it. Although not much momentary satisfaction, they get another form of satisfaction.”
He explains that when we work towards personal growth breakthroughs, we have to motivate ourselves to go further.
“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,” says Ariely.
How motivation steers us toward personal growth
Ariely's research into behavioural economics has led him to believe that if we want to achieve growth, we need to be rewarded for making healthier choices every day, as opposed to only rewarding ourselves for achieving an ultimate big-picture goal.
"When trying to develop healthy habits, we should focus on rewarding the behaviour instead of the outcome,” he says.
Ariely, who has written three New York Times bestsellers (Dollars and Sense, Predictably Irrational, The Upside of Irrationality, and The Honest Truth about Dishonesty) understands the pain of getting going. “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.”
So how do we fix this demotivation? “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.”
He adds: “I've looked at different strategies to motivate people to stick to their 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),” Ariely says.
Offering tangible rewards for making the right decisions
This ties in with the reasoning behind the design of the Vitality Active Rewards programme, says Dr Mosima Mabunda, Head of Vitality Wellness. “Vitality uses the principles of behavioural economics to encourage members to make small, healthy changes to help them achieve their health goals.”
She 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.”
Another nudge we can all use, is technology. “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,” Ariely says.
“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,” says Ariely.
You know what you want, and what you need - now figure out how you will reward yourself to get there.
Our six tips to personal growth breakthroughs
- First, set a realistic goal to break through. If you have never run before, try a simple parkrun, at whatever your pace. If you are a 5km runner, try a 10km.
- Understand what motivates you. Are you motivated by an indulgent breakfast, or a weekend getaway? Use this in your personal reward system.
- Push yourself to break through. Take the first step. Focus on the reward, not the pain of getting to and through your race. Eventually the pain will go away.
- Take that goal and break it up into smaller parts. For bigger goals, reward yourself, regularly, after each step forward. For instance, if your bigger goal is a holiday, start by booking your flights, then your hotel and then your car hire, after each smaller goal is achieved.
- Evaluate your goals. Have you set your goals towards your personal growth, too high or too low? If you aren’t growing for either reason, reassess them.
- Set new goals and keep them going. Once you enjoy the reward of a goal, set a new one. Each goal achieved is a step up the ladder to your personal growth. Eventually, you will reach the top.
Join Vitality today
Vitality is the world’s leading science-based behavioural-change programme that encourages and rewards you for living healthier and driving well.
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