When Willpower Isn’t Enough (Ep. 200)
One of the most compelling talks I saw at this year’s American Economics Association conference was by Katherine Milkman, an assistant professor at the Wharton School at Penn. She holds a joint Ph.D. in computer science and business, but her passion is behavioral economics — and, specifically, how its findings can be applied to help people in their daily lives. Milkman and her research are the focus of our latest Freakonomics Radio episode, “When Willpower Isn’t Enough.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)
Milkman’s AEA presentation came during a session chaired by Richard Thaler, who is widely (and justifiably) considered the dean of behavioral economics. (Thaler, a co-author of the excellent Nudge, has a new book out this spring called Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics; I’ve read an early draft and eagerly recommend it.) Whereas Thaler and his peers used to have to spend a lot time persuading their fellow economists that there was room in their field for psychology, it was obvious that, for a younger scholar like Milkman, persuasion isn’t part of the pitch. As we’ve noted in a few recent podcast episodes (namely “Hacking the World Bank” and “The Maddest of Men“), behavioral economics has been so broadly embraced that we’ve dispensed with the justification of it and moved on the applications.
Milkman’s research is motivated by personal experience. “In short,” she tells us, “I struggle a lot with willpower. And I find it difficult at the end of a long day to get to the gym, I find it difficult to stick to my diet, I find it difficult to stick to my goals more generally. And … one of the things I’ve found curious is why, and what I can do to solve those problems for myself and for others. And that’s where a lot of my research focuses.”
In the podcast, we talk primarily about two of Milkman’s ideas:
1. “Temptation bundling”: the idea of tying together two activities — one you should do but may avoid; and one you love to do but isn’t necessarily productive. Or, as Milkman describes it in a research paper (co-authored with Julia Minson and Kevin Volpp), “a method for simultaneously tackling two types of self-control problems by harnessing consumption complementarities. The paper is called “Holding The Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling.” Among the examples Milkman gives in the podcast: “So what if you only let yourself get a pedicure while catching up on overdue emails for work? Or what if you only let yourself listen to your favorite CDs while catching up on household chores. Or only let yourself go to your very favorite restaurant whose hamburgers you crave while spending time with a difficult relative who you should see more of.”
2. The “fresh start effect”: here’s how Milkman and co-authors Hengchen Dai and Jason Riis explain it in “The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior”:
The popularity of New Year’s resolutions suggests that people are more likely to tackle their goals immediately following salient temporal landmarks. If true, this little-researched phenomenon has the potential to help people overcome important willpower problems that often limit goal attainment. Across three archival field studies, we provide evidence of a “fresh start effect.” We show that Google searches for the term “diet” (Study 1), gym visits (Study 2), and commitments to pursue goals (Study 3) all increase following temporal landmarks (e.g., the outset of a new week, month, year, or semester; a birthday; a holiday). We propose that these landmarks demarcate the passage of time, creating many new mental accounting periods each year, which relegate past imperfections to a previous period, induce people to take a big-picture view of their lives, and thus motivate aspirational behaviors.
Along the way, you’ll hear Milkman present evidence that the fresh start effect and temptation bundling actually work; you’ll also hear from plenty of people who’ve tried such tricks on themselves. One thing they all have in common: they’ve come to accept that sometimes willpower, as appealing a trait as it is, sometimes just isn’t enough.
Special thanks to Shira Bannerman and Tyler Pratt for reporting on this episode.