When Willpower Isn’t Enough (Ep. 200)

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(Photo: d26b73)

(Photo: d26b73)

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.

typical consumer

I want you guys to lock my TV unless my stationary bike is in use. I don't see why that would be so hard these days with all the smart wifi devices. The stationary bike sends a signal to my PC. My PC allows the TV to turn on.


If we take temptation bundling a step further, I wonder if we'd begin to see some Pavlovian affect. That is, subjects don't want to exercise just to hear a book. They actually experience pleasure/stimulation with exercise alone because of its association with hearing stories...?

Can, eventually, we take away the temptation and enjoy the "grunt" task?

The question behind the question: Can I eat donuts while walking on a treadmill for months and, finally, after a certain period of time, enjoy walking on a treadmill as much as I enjoy eating donuts??


Temptation bundling to conquer willpower is an interesting idea. Something I have tried that works for me, but it took me some time to get used to and I am still working hard on it, is to change your mindset.
For example, if you want to lose weight and (like me) you are addicted to sugar, try taking a step back and view the bigger picture. So in my case, when late in the evening I get a craving for a piece of pie, for instance, I ask myself "is it really the pie I am craving?" and inevitably I find that no, it isn't the pie I want, it is the feeling after the pie I want. That sense of satisfaction - the happiness my body feels from that sugar is what I want. So instead of eating pie, I try an apple. Does that subside my cravings? If not, then maybe a tablespoon of honey or brown sugar... Usually what I want is some small amount of sugar and I actually feel better because I got that small addiction I wanted, yet it was drastically less worse for me. And it seems to work.
If you can change the way you view things - (1) realize that you don't need sugar, you want it and there are many ways of getting it; (2) working out for 50 minutes might seem like a long time, but actually think about how long 50 minutes is... it really is not long at all! Just stuff like that... actually really think about what you are doing and it becomes much easier to control. Using this technique I have managed to almost drop my weight down to 180lbs, which is what I was 10 years ago! Still another 10 lbs to go and I think adding temptation bundling to my arsenal will help a lot.



The idea that we can overcome willpower by bundling two complementary commitments (one a "should" activity and one we want to do) is an intriguing one. I thought that the experiment involving the audiobooks at the gym demonstrated this idea nicely, but there could have been so much more with the experiment. How did the genre of the book influence the amount of exercise that the participant did? Would an action-packed story make someone exercise with more effort than a slower story, perhaps? And when a participant finishes a book, are they less likely to continue going to the gym?

I was also interested in how there are certain "Fresh Start" Dates that get people more motivated to make a positive impact on their life. Of course, when they introduced the topic, I immediately thought of New Years, but when they talked about the first day of Spring, I was surprised. Just by making a day stand out from the others can make people more motivated to change, whether it's a special holiday or simply the start of a new season. A very intriguing idea!



This podcast inspired me to get more things done. I always listen music while doing chores but it is never anything special and more just something to get me through the work. I never considered audio books but after listening to this, that is something I would like to try. It would be something I am really into plus it would encourage repeated listening more than music. If I could find the right book and make myself only listen to it when I do dishes or laundry or whatever then I think it could work out pretty well.

Hannah B

It sounds like temptation bundling can really work for some people, but like with the boys at the gym, getting off track almost requires a different temptation to get the participate back on. However I would like to see this experiment done with different variables, like your favorite type of latte you can only drink while answering business emails, or something outside of the gym. I think that audiobooks are challenging to get people to exercise and that the TV show would have worked better. A positive thing about “temptation bundles” is that there is no punishment. With commitment devices, there is usually a punishment to not doing something, and negative energy expelled. With temptation bundling you are softening the stress of one task with the positive feelings associated with another. I employee temptation bundling when I visit my family back home but probably not in the safest way. I get anxious about talking on the phone but I love driving because it calms me down. My solution is to combine the two and I make all my doctors appointments and business like phone calls while driving different places. It really helps me get things done. Just to clarify these phone calls are usually short and I know that talking on the phone and driving is considered a distraction and not very safe.



''Temptation bundling'' and ''fresh start effect'' are really useful skills for achieving long term goals. And I think it is necessary to have detailed plans to make these skills work properly.For example, I had serious immunization disorder before. I need to take the pills on time and eat a much healthier diet. Hair loss was one of the problems caused by the immunization disorder, so I cut all my hair during the summer when I graduated from high school. That was truly a significant ''fresh start''. Also, I moved my home audio system to the kitchen so I could enjoy cooking something healthy at home instead of buying a slice of pizza at 7-11. I forced myself to watch TV shows only when I was eating my healthy meal at home. And I rewarded myself some junk food and cakes on my way to the supermarket once a week if I was having the pills and applying the ointment to my skin on time that week. This motivated me to have my treatment on time and go to the supermarket every week no matter how bad the weather was or how busy I was.
My temptation bundling seemed complicated but it worked perfectly. I was able to keep this ''healthy life mode'' for more than a year and now I have my hair growing well and a much healthier body. And I realize that after I keep doing something for a certain period, I gradually get used to it and don't need the bundling as much as before.



Is it just me or does tha audio track keep 'jumping'. I'm loving sound every few seconds. Thought it may be the Podcasts app but it'shappening with player here too. Thanks


I have tried something similar in the past, but I had found a way to beat it and undermine my own best interests.

I told myself that I would only listen to new records when I was exercising. That way I'd make time to keep up with the newest music (which I love) and, additionally, be in better shape (even though I don't like to work out very much). I would have hoped that the two–the woeful activity and the pleasurable one—would become linked and I would even begin to enjoy sweating it out.

One day, while boarding the train I received a text message from my friend.

"Dude, it's been a week and you still haven't listened to Band X! You have to!"

It had been a week since I had jumped on the treadmill. I hadn't worked out or listened to anything new, so both my goals were suffering. Temptation, and a little peer pressure, moved me to cheat and, while I am listening to new music more frequently, I am working out just as much as I used to. Not very much.



Love the podcast, but... It was so weird to hear Stephen read that Goldman Sachs marketing copy in his own voice. It was as if he was channeling the great vampire squid.


@ James: I agree. For me, I feel like temptation bundling would turn more into inefficient multi-tasking. This may partially be because of my lifestyle as a working student that almost everything requires my full attention and concentration, so combining tasks or easing the pain of one activity by adding an enjoyable activity would only lower how effectively/efficiently I am completing a task. I would be interested to see results of how effective workouts, diets, etc are when bundled with other activities.
I also don't quite like where the fresh start effect was going in the podcast - it was repetitively mentioned that people could receive some sort of reminder of "fresh start" days. I feel that what constitutes as a new beginning for people could be completely subjective, so certain days may not have an effect on everyone. Plus, we are all so bombarded constantly with reminders, pop-ups, ads, etc. Who's to say that one more reminder, as suggested, wouldn't get ignored with most other notifications we receive in a day and thus lose its power?



I think "temptation bundling" is a really good idea and can be effective in many ways if the person has the willpower to keep it going. For instance, last year I had the bright idea of only watching my TV shows while I was at the gym. This way I would enjoy it more and it would act as a distraction rather than watching the seconds tick by in front of me on the treadmill (because we all know that makes running even more grueling). This lasted for a while, but then I started getting lazy and though I would tell myself I needed to go to the gym after school I started to go home instead and turn on a TV show on my kindle while I ate. My willpower was not strong enough and soon this became a habit that I couldn't shake. What I'm trying to get at is I do believe "temptation bundling" works, its just the person needs to have the willpower to keep up with their decisions. I can't think of anything recently that I have used this trick, but I am getting back into my workout routine so maybe I'll watch my TV shows again or bring a magazine and let myself read silly articles while also being productive and healthy.



I hate doing housework. So when watching my favorite TV programs in the evening, when a commercial comes on, I do a little bit of housework. First commercial, get out the vacuum, plug in and prep. Second commercial, move the furniture around to vacuum, third commercial, vacuum. Same with doing dishes and dusting. After 2 hours of programs, I have a lot done without the hand wringing.

Sabastian Hunt

Is there a complete dictionary for all of these terms of Behavioral Economics that incorporate brand new terms like temptation bundling?


Great podcast, great ideas

What I want to know is -- what is on that list of addictive audiobooks? any way to find out?