Are You Ready for a Fresh Start? (Ep. 455)
Behavioral scientists have been exploring if — and when — a psychological reset can lead to lasting change. We survey evidence from the London Underground, Major League Baseball, and New Year’s resolutions; we look at accidental fresh starts, forced fresh starts, and fresh starts that backfire. And we wonder: will the pandemic’s end provide the biggest fresh start ever?
Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
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Katy MILKMAN: I know a lot of people were particularly excited about January 1 of this year. I got extra emails about, “Oh, thank goodness, it’s finally 2021, I’m so excited.”
That’s Katy Milkman.
MILKMAN: I’m a professor at the Wharton School. And I’m also the author of the book How to Change and I’m the co-director of the Behavior Change for Good initiative with Angela Duckworth.
As a behavior-change specialist, Milkman sees January 1st as something of a high holy day. Every year, roughly half of all Americans make a New Year’s resolution to break some habit, fix some flaw, pick up some new activity. At the top of these wish lists — and yes, I’m calling them “wish” lists; you’ll see why later — at the top are: eating better, drinking less, exercising more. We asked Freakonomics Radio listeners to tell us their resolutions for this year. Some of you set the bar pretty low.
BRANDON: My New Year’s resolution is to give myself a frickin’ break.
KEITH: I realized I haven’t been showering enough. So I made it a New Year’s resolution to shower every 36 hours, and so far so good.
BAILEY: Visiting the tide pools. That’s it. That’s the only New Year’s resolution that I set. And I figured it’d be really awesome if it happened and also totally okay if it didn’t.
And some of you were more ambitious.
PAIGE: My New Year’s resolution was to read 25 books. So far I’m on-target. Last year, my New Year’s resolution was to stop drinking during the week, and that was a complete failure.
TIEGEN: I made a resolution to try one new food every week because I used to be an incredibly picky eater.
COURTNEY: Hi there, Freakonomics. My one resolution in 2021 is that at least four days every month I do not drive my car, nor do I hail any kind of ride-share or taxi or anything. It’s my little way to try and reduce my fossil-fuel consumption.
Why is January 1st the day that we burden with so much hope, so much resolve?
MILKMAN: That’s a fresh start. It’s the big fresh start. But there are others, too, it turns out. So, it could be a birthday, the start of a new week even, or the start of a new month. There are other things that start cycles, like going to a new job or having a child or moving to a new community. All of these things are fresh starts and give us that same sense that we have a new beginning, a new chapter opening in our lives.
Katy Milkman and some colleagues have named this motivation the “fresh-start effect.” She says that fresh starts can shift our psychology in at least two ways. The first:
MILKMAN: They feel like new beginnings. So, they give us a sense that anything that preceded them — that was the old me, this is the new me. And so we can wipe that slate clean.
And the second shift:
MILKMAN: They make us step back and think big-picture about our lives and our goals because they’re sort of disruptive. It’s like this different moment. You’re entering a new era.
Stephen DUBNER: Did the phrase “the fresh-start effect” really not exist?
MILKMAN: It really didn’t. All we had to do was add “effect” to this very catchy, well-known phrase. And it became like we had invented something brilliant and new.
Humans have indeed long been captivated by the notion of the fresh start. Think about the Book of Genesis and the story of Joseph. Joseph’s older brothers are so jealous of him and his fancy coat of many colors that first they toss him in a pit and later sell him into slavery. But ultimately he gets a fresh start — in Egypt, where none less than Pharaoh makes Joseph his advisor, his oracle.
During the Enlightenment, the fresh start idea was given a philosophical boost when John Locke argued that each person begins life with a tabula rasa, what we think of today as a “blank slate.” And in the modern era — just think of all the literature and film where the protagonist sheds their skin, their identity, even their family. America itself was one big fresh start for a bunch of disgruntled Europeans, and it remains so today for people from every continent and every level of gruntlement. But in academia, as Katy Milkman found, the fresh-start concept hadn’t received all that much attention.
MILKMAN: It feels really important and real. Like, of course, it’s real. To me, those are the most exciting things to study as a social scientist because you know it’s big. And it just hasn’t been understood fully yet and we were like, let’s probe it. Let’s see how we can use it. Let’s really make sense of what are the moments that are fresh starts? What do they look like? What are their characteristics? How can we help people use them more?
Today on Freakonomics Radio: the promise and limits of the fresh-start effect.
MILKMAN: This is all a mind game.
We hear about an accidental fresh start:
Andy BYFORD: I actually flew over here with a view to changing the visa and ended up being trapped by the travel ban.
An unwanted fresh start:
Bob TEWKSBURY: It’s almost like your mom and dad saying, “Hey, by the way, we don’t want you anymore. You’re going to go live with the Smiths.”
And: fresh starts that spoil fast.
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Last week, on Episode 454, we looked into why the traffic roundabout, which is known to be safer than an intersection with traffic lights, is relatively uncommon in the U.S. One convincing theory was that many people are simply averse to change; they’re naturally suspicious of anything that’s a bit different. Indeed, there’s a large body of research showing that aversion to change is real, and large. And yet — humans being the funny animals we are — we also want change, sometimes desperately. At least that’s what you’d conclude when you think about New Year’s resolutions and the zeal with which so many people make them. So how successful are New Year’s resolutions? A recent study by a University of Stockholm psychologist named Per Carlbring, along with three co-authors, found that 55 percent of these resolutions essentially worked. That sounds amazing!
MILKMAN: So I’m going to be a grouch about it.
That, again, is Katy Milkman, whose research on the fresh-start effect is cited, approvingly, in this new study.
MILKMAN: So the study is correlational. And it’s also, you know, based on self-report.
That is, the study wasn’t a randomized or controlled experiment.
MILKMAN: Most every study that is done to see how many people achieve their New Year’s resolutions is based on self-report. It’s really hard to get objective data on this unless you’re stalking people in some incredibly bizarre way.
But also: Milkman’s own experience tells her that a 55 percent success rate for New Year’s resolutions is just incredibly high.
MILKMAN: It’s out of whack with any other study I’ve ever heard of. It’s possible they recruited a really unusual sample. But it’s also possible that there was something about the way they were asking the questions that led people to report success when they weren’t really achieving it. You can ask the same question very different ways. Like, “Are you still working on your goal?”
We reached out to Per Carlbring for some clarification. He told us that his research sample was indeed unusual — that it wasn’t random, that he’d recruited volunteers who were, “on average, more motivated” to make a change. He also said that the way he posed his question, “you did not have to be 100% successful”; “as long as you are moving in the right direction,” he said, “that is enough” to be counted as a success. So, yes, that 55 percent “success” rate isn’t what you might, objectively, consider “success.” To Katy Milkman’s point: other studies trying to measure New Year’s resolutions have shown a success rate as low as 8 percent. To her, that’s closer to the reality.
MILKMAN: So, it’s a funny thing. In general, goal pursuit mostly ends in failure.
DUBNER: T ell me about it.
MILKMAN: I’m always a little defensive when people say, “Oh, why should we even bother pursuing our goals? Most of it ends in failure.” Because obviously, you can’t really get anywhere if you don’t try.
DUBNER: As they like to say, you miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.
MILKMAN: You got it. So, we’re pretty confident that it is a beneficial thing to have more people going for it.
“Going for it” meaning pursuing goals that require behavior change, and using whatever tools are available — like the fresh start — to accomplish those goals. Milkman and her colleagues published their first research on the fresh-start effect in 2014. The data came from Google search results.
MILKMAN: So, if you just grab a data set, like when people search for the term “diet” on Google, you see a natural tendency to create goals more at these fresh-start moments, meaning the beginning of a new year, birthdays, the start of a new week or a new month.
They also ran some experiments.
MILKMAN: It turns out if you just point out to someone, “Hey, did you notice March 20th is the first day of spring?,” that all of a sudden increases their likelihood of wanting to start pursuing a goal on that date.
But they also found — as shown by New Year’s resolutions — that a fresh start is only a start. It is by no means a guarantee that the new behavior will stick.
MILKMAN: It’s not a one-and-done solution. You don’t just need a little more motivation. There’s all these obstacles to change. And we need a set of tools that tackle all of them, not just that momentary motivation, if we want to change daily decisions.
But what about situations where a behavior doesn’t have to be repeated? Like enrolling in a retirement-saving program?
MILKMAN: We teamed up with several universities that wanted to encourage their employees who weren’t yet saving for retirement to save more.
Milkman and her team sent out mailers to more than 8,000 people, randomly dividing them into two treatment groups.
MILKMAN: So, imagine there was Stephen Dubner One and Stephen Dubner Two in our study. And you’re identical twins with the same name except for One and Two.
DUBNER: Dr. Seuss named me, plainly.
MILKMAN: So, Stephen Dubner One is randomly assigned to the control group. He gets a mailing inviting him to start saving either now or in three months. And let’s say Stephen Dubner Two’s birthday and Stephen One’s birthday both happened to be in three months. Stephen Dubner Two gets randomly assigned to the fresh-start condition. He’s invited not to start saving now or in three months, but to start saving now or after his next birthday. Now, it’s an identical offer. But in one case, it’s highlighting a moment that might feel appropriate for saving.
The researchers also sprinkled in a few placebo dates throughout the sample, like Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Valentine’s Day.
MILKMAN: We found that the dates that really worked were birthdays and the beginning of spring. Whereas the other dates we looked at — actually, New Year’s didn’t have a big effect, which was surprising. We would have expected it to, and then, of course, as you would expect, the placebo dates, nothing happening there.
Milkman was convinced that the fresh-start effect is substantial enough that it can transcend the calendar, that it can be manipulated to suit one’s needs.
MILKMAN: This is all a mind game. So, certainly, if you want to, you can remind yourself every Monday you know, every time there’s a holiday, it’s a new beginning. This is one of the things that’s made the coronavirus era so hard, which is that the way we lead our lives, they’re really constructed to give us opportunities to restart all the time. It feels like we’re all living this very long week that started in March of 2020.
DUBNER: Is the average Monday more powerful than the average first of the month, even though there are four times or five times as many Mondays?
MILKMAN: That’s my sense. The day of the week effect seems stronger. Like, we all really notice the weekends. They’re really different — less during coronavirus than at other times, but there is some distinction that’s very real between the weekends and the week. Monday, you haven’t been at your desk in a while, hopefully, if you had a good weekend and you managed to set everything aside. That juice runs out a little bit by the 17th Zoom call of the week, but I feel excited at the beginning of a week.
One thing I’ve observed is how often a new location can trigger a fresh start. Like if you rent a little house for a family vacation and there’s a chair in the corner and a bunch of books on the shelf — I’ll spend days reading books I’d never think about reading at home. Why? Your routines have been broken; also: these aren’t the same old books you have at home. The novelty is inspiring. Isn’t that why so many of us love to travel? It exposes you to new experiences, new people, new ways to see the world — and think about your place in it. Travel is a constant barrage of fresh starts. That’s why travel can also be disorienting, even overwhelming. This past year, we’ve all taken a disorienting and unscheduled trip to the land of Covid-19. So what will our collective return feel like? Just think about how many fresh starts we’ll be looking at — new relationships, new jobs, new living circumstances.
MILKMAN: You’ve got all the goodies in there, right? You’ve got the new environment and the psychological break. What we know is that when people move and their circumstances change, their environments change, their social circles change, it gives them an opportunity to change along with those things. And if they want to take advantage of that opportunity and structure their lives in a way that will facilitate better outcomes, they’re better set up to do that when you move because you haven’t built routines. You haven’t built bad habits.
This made me want to talk to someone who’s moved several times for his work, to three continents.
Andy BYFORD: Stephen, Andy Byford here, how are you?
DUBNER: Andy, how are you?
BYFORD: Good to hear from you, my friend. I’m really well, thank you.
Andy Byford is one of the world’s best-known public-transit officials. A few years ago, he worked on an overhaul of the New York City subway system. Before that, Toronto — and, previously, Sydney, Australia.
BYFORD: Certainly I’m used to fresh starts. I find it invigorating. I don’t want to flit around, but I have enjoyed the diversity of the various cities I’ve lived in.
BYFORD: Each job I’ve gone to, there’s been a little bit of me that’s developed. Someone described me the other day as a veteran. And you never think of yourself as a veteran. You think, hang on a minute, this has been 32 years now. Three continents. Maybe I’m a veteran.
With his accumulated expertise, Byford became the person that people call when their entire system needs a fresh start.
BYFORD: Obviously, you have to learn a whole new system. You have to learn the new personalities, the politics, the detail, if you will, of that system. But I don’t really see that as a downside. It keeps you focused. It energizes you.
He uses that fresh start to persuade the powers that be that the reason their transport system needs an overhaul is because they’ve been underfunding maintenance and innovation. And that they need to find a big pot of money, right away.
BYFORD: You have to develop, create, write, and present a compelling case as to what could be different, and what could be better, were you to have adequate funding. So let’s take some examples. New York City Transit is a classic example. I could have gone there and held the fort. I could have turned up and, you know, made marginal improvements a few tweaks here and there. But I felt that New Yorkers deserved better than that.
The year before Byford arrived in New York City, 2017, was a banner year for subway awfulness. The governor of New York State, Andrew Cuomo, was Byford’s ultimate boss; he had declared a state of emergency at the M.T.A., the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Andy Byford put together a rehab plan called Fast Forward, with a price tag of $40 billion. He was able to sell the plan and secure the funding. The subway rehab quickly got underway. When Byford got to New York, the subway’s on-time performance was 58 percent; under him, it rose to 80 percent. He became a folk hero; his nickname: Train Daddy. Train Daddy stickers began showing up around the city.
BYFORD: The whole Train Daddy thing was amusing. It appeared from nowhere. And, you know, suddenly there was that associated fuss that went with the moniker.
If there’s one thing politicians dislike — and this seems especially true for New York politicians, including Governor Cuomo — it is when their subordinates become too popular. Andy Byford began to find himself excluded from certain meetings; his parent agency, the M.T.A., underwent a sudden reorganization.
BYFORD: As a result of the reorganization, my job was basically cut in half. It wasn’t the job that I was brought into New York to do.
The modernization of the subway system was no longer part of Andy Byford’s portfolio; he’d been downsized to running the day-to-day operations.
BYFORD: Even what was left, the residual element, namely of running the day-to-day, I found that I was being excluded from key decisions. I was finding that other people were taking what I felt were operational decisions, and that was an untenable position.
Byford had loved this New York job. He and his wife loved living in New York. But Train Daddy had had enough.
BYFORD: I chose to resign. It was my choice, though. I could have stayed.
Byford’s resignation landed in January 2020, just as a certain pernicious virus was starting to circulate the globe.
BYFORD: Once the true horror of Covid emerged, I did feel somewhat guilty because had I known what was only a couple of months away, I may still have resigned, but I would think I would have put it in abeyance because I felt desperately sad for the wonderful 50,000 employees of New York City Transit who have borne a terrible price for Covid. As a leader, I would like to have been there to at least lead them through it, even if the end result would have been that ultimately I’d have still gone.
But Byford had quit, and he didn’t know what he was going to do next. He and his wife did plan to stay in New York. But first, he had to fly home to England.
BYFORD: I actually came over from New York to change my visa, and ended up being trapped by the travel ban.
So the Covid shutdown had Byford stuck in England — and his wife, in New York.
BYFORD: Sitting in my home in Plymouth, it struck me that this was a golden opportunity to do my bit for Britain, to do my bit for London, to throw my hat in the ring.
That’s right. At the very moment that the former New York City transit chief happened to be detained in his native country, a vacancy had arisen for the commissioner’s post at the massive agency known as Transport for London. Byford applied, got the job, and is now responsible not only for London’s subways — also known as the Tube, or the Underground — but the entire transport system: above-ground trains and ferries, roads and buses, even bicycles and pedestrians. It was a Covid-induced fresh start for Byford in a system that will need to make its own Covid-induced fresh start.
BYFORD: Bus ridership at the moment is around 40 percent. The Tube, around 20 percent of normal levels. At one point, the Tube was 5 percent of its normal ridership — levels not seen since Victorian times.
And it’s hard to predict what ridership levels will return to, and when.
BYFORD: We’ve modeled five scenarios, ranging from a doomsday scenario, where pretty much ridership never recovers, through to probably an overly optimistic one, where we get back to normal within a couple of months of lockdown ending. I don’t think either of those are likely, but something in the middle ground, where maybe we get to 90 percent of ridership in the medium term, that’s more likely.
Byford is choosing to look at this moment as an opportunity.
BYFORD: One of my mantras in life is, there’s always opportunity in adversity and I’d certainly say that’s the case for the pandemic, because you can take the opportunity to reflect upon the way you’ve always done things.
“Reflecting on the way you’ve always done things” is, as Katy Milkman explained earlier, one of the key benefits of a fresh start. And one of the most interesting pieces of fresh-start evidence happens to come from the very same London Underground that Andy Byford now runs. In 2014, there was a two-day transit strike that shut down some stations across the London subway system. Many commuters had their normal routes disrupted. You could look at this as simply a temporary inconvenience or you could look at it as a forced fresh start. Especially if you were an economist in search of a research project.
Ferdinand RAUCH: So my name is Ferdinand Rauch. I’m an economist at Oxford University.
When the strike was over, Rauch and some colleagues gathered data that showed how commuters had adjusted their routes. The researchers could see what share of commuters responded to this forced experiment by changing their behavior and sticking with the new route.
RAUCH: About 5 percent of commuters in the London system changed their behavior if confronted with forced experimentation.
Or, as Katy Milkman puts it:
MILKMAN: About 5 percent of commuters found something new in that two-day experiment that was better for them, and they stuck to it thereafter.
RAUCH: So it might be a more pleasant walk or there might be a convenient shop along the way that you discover when you take a different route. Could be that the stations are more pleasant to wait in. So it could be all sorts of things that make one commute better than another one.
So the fresh start provided by a two-day interruption of their routine led a significant share of commuters — 5 percent — to try something that they wound up liking better, and sticking with, even though they hadn’t sought out the change. The Covid shutdown has been a change that none of us sought out. So you do have to wonder what sort of old habits we’ve broken or new ones we’ve formed.
RAUCH: So our habits are tested very rigorously by Covid. We have to question most things we do. We have to do many things differently. If the general theme of our paper is correct, that people are stuck in habits excessively, then Covid has lasted for so long now that people it could just be that they are now stuck in a new habit.
MILKMAN: I changed my exercise routines around this pandemic because my schedule changed. My childcare situation changed. I wasn’t going to the office. But the new habits I’ve built aren’t going to be consistent with and compatible with going back to my old routines. So, I’m going to need to create a new exercise habit. And that means I need to sort of start again in creating that routine. And that’s tricky.
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Katy Milkman has a joint Ph.D. in computer science and business but what she really studies is behavior change — how to make bad habits less attractive and good habits a bit stickier. That’s much easier said than done. And when it comes to behavior change, theory doesn’t always predict reality.
MILKMAN: We had this theory that the best way to help people build lasting habits would be if we got them into a really stable routine. So, if we could convince you every day at the same time to go to the gym. We said, if we basically pay you enough to do it at the same time consistently over and over again for a month, we’re going to see this skyrocket in terms of habit formation. So, we ran this test. We paid some people to be really routine, like really the same time every day. And other people we paid to be less routine, if you will. And we were sure the routine folks, when we let go and watched what happened, they would rise.
But, what she and her fellow researchers actually saw:
MILKMAN: It was the opposite. The people who we paid to be flexible and to do things at different times, they built more lasting habits. And I think fresh starts are like that, too. Like, life is a mess. So, we need to have flexibility. And there’s all these little tricks, like trying to train habits that have fallback plans, trying to build in a buffer in case we fail.
DUBNER: So, when you talk about helping people follow through and achieve more, it sounds like you’re talking about a portion of the population, but certainly not the whole population — because, you know, life is not a mess for everyone. And there are some people for whom routine is not only desirable, but they’re really good at it. And they have discipline that doesn’t require them to have these fresh starts. If I’m, let’s say, a military officer listening to you, I say, “Well, okay, you sound like you’re trying to fix a problem that I’ve fixed in a different way by actually having routine and discipline where I am able to accomplish the goals I need to without relying on some mental trickery.” So, is what you’re describing really universal and really generalizable, or is it more for the kind of people who tend toward a certain kind of “messiness,” in your phraseology?
MILKMAN: I actually think the most successful people use all these tricks.
DUBNER: So, that’s why they’re successful, you’re saying.
MILKMAN: Yeah. I’ve yet to meet the perfect person, like this military officer of whom you speak. I feel like I interact with a lot of really, really successful, incredible people, between my students at the Wharton School and my colleagues and the people I’ve had the opportunity to work with at companies on research projects.
DUBNER: And they’re all a mess, you’re saying.
MILKMAN: Well, they’re achieving a lot, but we all have struggles. There’s nobody who isn’t suffering from self-control issues or forgetfulness and at some level, the more you achieve, the more you need to get everything right because the margin for error is smaller. But yeah, I don’t think there’s a lot of people who have everything figured out. Everybody’s striving to be better on some dimension.
There’s also the fact that once you’ve established a good habit or routine, nowhere is it written that you are entitled to its everlasting continuation.
MILKMAN: We’d done this big intervention to try to get people to exercise more regularly. And we had this very positive effect. And it got wiped away at Thanksgiving break. So, students have this disruption to their schedules. And they went home. The gym was closed. They came back and all the benefits were washed away.
Milkman and her colleagues already knew that a fresh start can have a positive effect. But this Thanksgiving lapse got them to see a flipside.
MILKMAN: We were really interested in the idea that disruptions could sometimes be negative. We were also really interested in the idea of resets.
Hengchen DAI: I study a type of fresh start that I call “reset.”
That is Hengchen Dai, a former student of Katy Milkman’s. Dai now teaches at U.C.L.A.’s Anderson School of Management, where she studies motivation. She first started exploring the “reset” idea in a series of lab experiments. Participants would play a game in which they would be interrupted at the midpoint. At this interruption, some participants had their score reset to zero; others would keep their score running.
Dai wanted to know whether a reset affected overall performance and if so, whether there was a difference if, before the reset, the participant was doing well in the game or doing poorly. In other words: what’s the fresh-start effect look like if you’re succeeding, and what’s it look like if you’re struggling? Her lab results were interesting enough that she wanted to analyze the reset effect in the real world. She went looking for a real-world scenario that mirrored the lab game she’d been running. And she found it in Major League Baseball. This might lead you to assume that Dai is a big baseball fan.
DAI: I basically know nothing about baseball. I often joke to my friends that life is too short to watch baseball.
But baseball had a quirk that was perfect for what Dai wanted to know about resets.
DAI: So, Major League Baseball consists of two leagues, the American League and the National League.
Quite routinely, players are traded during the season.
DAI: And when a player is traded across leagues during the regular season, his season-to-date statistics are reset. So, for example, say a player had a season-to-date batting average right before trade as .275.
A .275 batting average is pretty good, above the league average; anything in the neighborhood of .300 is considered excellent. So let’s say that .275 hitter is traded from a team in the American League, like the Boston Red Sox, to a team to a team in the National League, like the Chicago Cubs.
DAI: If he’s traded across leagues, his batting average will start from zero.
So that is a reset. But — and here’s the quirk that made baseball the perfect real-world setting for Hengchen Dai’s study — if that same .275 batter is traded from one American League team to another American League team, or from one National League team to another National League team, his batting average doesn’t get reset. Voila: a perfect natural experiment to test the power of the reset. With a lot of data: Dai looked at about 700 trades from 1975 to 2014, covering 250,000 individual at-bats. Now, there were a lot of factors Dai had to consider. For instance, if a player happened to be doing very well when they were traded and did worse after, or vice versa.
DAI: I think some people who are listening to this episode will naturally think, “Wait, wouldn’t it just be a regression to the mean, right?” And that’s why it’s critical for me to have a control condition, to look at people who are also traded but within the same league.
Regression to the mean wasn’t the only thing Dai had to control for. For instance:
DAI: Maybe it’s just easier to get a high batting average once you were traded because now you often play in ballparks that are favorable to batters.
Right. Some ballparks are considered “hitters’ parks” while others favor pitchers. And you play half your games in your home park; so you have to control for that. And also:
DAI: People may be wondering, “Okay, batters traded across leagues may face pitchers whom they have not encountered, right? And in contrast, the batter who is traded within the same league may continue to bat against the same set of pitchers.” So what I did is I tried to capture batter-pitcher familiarity by controlling for the number of times a batter encountered a given pitcher up to a given at-bat during his career.
As you can tell, Hengchen Dai learned quite a bit about baseball for someone who finds that life is too short to watch it. What else did she have to control for?
DAI: So one potential concern is people were traded to teams with different qualities, potentials, and performances, right? So, to address this possibility, each time when a player comes at-bat, I control for the performance of the team at that time the player was at. And specifically, I control for the percentage of games the player’s team had won up to that date, as well as the team’s batting average up to that date.
She also controlled for the difference in moving from the American League to the National League versus from the National League to the American League. And finally, Dai controlled for the date of the trade — the point in the season at which it took place.
DAI: If I’m traded at a later point, I may have a different reaction to reset. And I want to make sure this is not driving my effect.
So, with all those bases covered, Dai ran her analysis across all those trades, all those years, all those at-bats. What’d she find?
DAI: So, I find that when a player’s performance is weak — more precisely, their batting average prior to the trade is low — a reset is helpful. Their performance after the trade is significantly better if they are traded across leagues than if they are traded within the same league.
In other words, for players who had not been playing well, a trade with a batting-average reset provided a fresh start that lifted their fortunes. And what about players who had been playing well before they were traded?
DAI: So, their performance actually reduced after they were traded, both when they are traded across leagues or when they are traded within-league.
So for players who were doing well when they were traded, the reset proved to be a negative. More of an interruption than a fresh start. One example Dai points to in her data is Manny Ramirez, one of the best hitters in the modern era; he played for five teams over nearly two decades. Dai points to the 2010 trade that brought him from the Los Angeles Dodgers of the National League to the Chicago White Sox of the American League, and a newspaper article published at the time:
DAI: And I quote the article. It says, “Ramirez’s batting average has slipped all the way after a decent start. He has more strikesouts than hits.”
TEWKSBURY: I think in the case of Manny, age is a factor.
That’s Bob Tewksbury.
TEWKSBURY: He also, I believe, got suspended because of performance-enhancing drugs. And I think he spent his time away, or whatever the penalty was, and then came back.
Tewksbury is a former big-league pitcher himself.
TEWKSBURY: I personally don’t think that that’s a great person to focus on on this, because of his variables.
Now, just because one player has a few extra variables to consider doesn’t mean that Hengchen Dai’s findings don’t hold up. But the case of Manny Ramirez does show how tricky it can be to measure behavior change at the individual level. In baseball, as in life, one change may be accompanied by many more. But Bob Tewksbury does believe that Hengchen Dai’s research, in general, has the ring of truth. After his pitching career, Tewksbury became a mental-skills coach, and he’s worked for a variety of teams.
TEWKSBURY: If you’re below that league average and you get traded, I think psychologically you’re having a bad year and you’re thinking like, “Oh my God, I’m going to end up hitting .230 this year.” But then you get traded and you go, “Hey, I can start over again and it’s fresh.” And now you get out of the gate and you’re 3-for-your-first-10 and you’re hitting .300, and psychologically you feel better. And conversely, when you get traded across leagues and you know, you’re batting .300 in one league the psychological effect is, “Now I’ve got to keep this going. I’ve lost my whole routine.” I think the reset effect is real in that case on both ends.
As a pitcher, Bob Tewksbury won more than 100 games, playing for six teams over more than a decade. He had the experience of being traded — from his first team, the New York Yankees.
TEWKSBURY: I was with my now-wife. It was the All-Star Break of ‘87. She had come to visit me, and we went to the Catskills. And the bellman at the hotel told me that I’d been traded, you know, there was no cell phones. It was on the radio. He told me. And I’m like, “Holy cow.” And it is a blow it’s almost like you know, your mom and dad saying, “Hey, by the way, we don’t want you anymore. You’re going to go live with the Smiths.”
The trade sent Tewksbury to the Chicago Cubs.
TEWKSBURY: And they didn’t know me from Adam. I actually was hurt shortly after I got there, so I didn’t perform well. And then the perception of, you know, we traded for this guy? The innuendos, the body language, the nonverbals, you know, you don’t feel comfortable. You’re learning a new city and a new everything. So that move from New York to Chicago was not good. But the move from Chicago to St. Louis was wonderful.
That move was a year later. Tewksbury, by now a free agent, chose to sign with the St. Louis Cardinals.
TEWKSBURY: You know, I felt comfortable. The organization was very family-friendly. I met some friends that, you know, we played together for a long time and that became very fun. My son was born in St. Louis. I had my best seasons there. And I think a lot of it was because of the comfort level of playing in St. Louis and the people in the city and in the organization.
It’d be hard for any fresh-start data set to reflect the variables that Bob Tewksbury’s talking about here. Not just a new team but a new community, a new environment, a growing family. So it’s probably not the reset alone that messes with your psyche. Any number of things could make a fresh start a good one or a bad one. There’s another sport — which Tewksbury’s also fond of — that may be a bit simpler to consider: golf.
TEWKSBURY: The golfers all live at home. They’re not on a particular team. They travel to the tournaments. The golf courses don’t change. You know, the hole is still the same size when you get to the green.
And there’s one particularly intriguing fresh-start possibility in professional golf. Most of the best players on the P.G.A. Tour are in their 20s and 30s; it’s mostly a young man’s game. But at age 50, there’s a reset possibility: that’s when you can qualify for the P.G.A.’s senior tour. And if you look at what happens to golfers as they turn 50 and join that tour — some of them win tournaments right away, most recent examples being Jim Furyk and Phil Mickelson. Granted, they are both still good enough to play on the regular P.G.A. Tour, and the senior courses are easier. But if I were an academic researcher looking for another scenario to test the fresh-start effect, I’d be thinking about golfers and the age-50 reset.
TEWKSBURY: I think that would be a good study on age and performance.
At the very least, Katy Milkman thinks there is one idea from golf that should carry over into real life. It’s the mulligan — a free, do-over shot.
MILKMAN: I think we should all take a mulligan for 2020 and probably the first half of 2021. Yes, it’s a mess. You know, when you’re stressed out and dealing with horrible things happening in the world, it’s really hard to stay on track with your goals. So, I think, yeah, everybody should cut themselves some slack and jump on the fresh-start bandwagon when things start looking up.
When you are ready, feel free to take inspiration from these Freakonomics Radio listeners and their New Year’s resolutions:
JACLYN: My resolution is to stay off of Facebook.
MICHAEL: My New Year’s resolution is to not do any personal online shopping.
PATRICIA: My 2021 New Year’s resolution is to be more stoic.
ERIC: This year, my resolution is to avoid saying “no” when friends or family invite me to spend time with them.
JIFFY: My New Year’s resolution is to get my kids to spend a thousand hours outside and to be with them doing that.
GREG: I’m 76 years old and I’ve never made a New Year’s resolution until now. I pledge to compose and perform a short melody, less than a minute, for every day of 2021 and post it on Instagram. But honestly, it might have been easier to give up on the booze.
Thanks to everyone who sent in resolutions. Thanks, also, to Katy Milkman, Hengchen Dai, Andy Byford, Ferdinand Rauch and Bob Tewksbury for teaching us all about fresh starts. We’ll be back next week. Until then, take care of yourself and, if you can, someone else too.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Zack Lapinski. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Mark McClusky, Matt Hickey, Mary Diduch, and Emma Tyrrell; we had help this week from Jasmin Klinger. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Katy Milkman, professor at the Wharton School.
- Andy Byford, world’s best-known public-transit officials.
- Ferdinand Rauch, economist at Oxford University.
- Hengchen Dai, professor at U.C.L.A.’s Anderson School of Management,
- Bob Tewksbury, former big-league pitcher.
- “A Large-Scale Experiment on New Year’s Resolutions: Approach-Oriented Goals are More Successful than Avoidance-Oriented Goals,” by Martin Oscarsson, Per Carlbring, Gerhard Andersson, and Alexander Rozental (PLOS ONE, 2020).
- “A Double-Edged Sword: How and Why Resetting Performance Metrics Affects Motivation and Performance,” by Hengchen Dai (Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 2018).
- “The Benefits of Forced Experimentation: Striking Evidence from the London Underground Network,” by Shaun Larcom, Ferdinand Rauch, and Tim Willems (2017).
- “Framing the Future: The Risks of Pre-Commitment Nudges and Potential of Fresh Start Messaging,” by John Beshears, Hengchen Dai, Katherine L. Milkman, and Shlomo Benartzi (NBER, 2016).
- “The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior,” by Hengchen Dai, Katherine L. Milkman, and Jason Riis (Management Science, 2014).
- “Holding the Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling,” by Katherine L. Milkman, Julia A. Minson, and Kevin G. M. Volpp (Management Science, 2013).
- “The Resolution Solution: Longitudinal Examination of New Year’s Change Attempts,” by John C. Norcross and Dominic J.Vangarelli (Journal of Substance Abuse, 1989).