Monday, 14 March 2011

from good intentions to good habits

Despite the neuroscience article yesterday my scientific interests and abilities mainly lie in the dismal sciences. Yes, Dr Haribo is an economist. That should put the Kate Middleton rumours to rest.

It's not my field in economics, but there are a lot of great economists out there doing research on obesity and its causes and treatments. However, today I'm going to refer you to some work on on exercise and habit formation. Mainly because I've been trying so hard to force myself to keep the habit of going to the gym going, despite my injury, even when I can't do my favourite classes.

Although the VoxEu website mainly focuses on areas more traditionally associated with economics, occasionally they have articles such as the one below which talks about the beneficial effect that making contracts has on altering our behaviour.  
I think we can all relate to difficulty in turning our good intentions into actual long term behaviour.  

The article by Charness and Gneezi is a great paper and has been very influential. What they show is that by giving people, who would not have exercised otherwise, financial incentives to exercise for a short period of time this can be nudge they need to start a good habit: these people continued to exercise even when they were no longer receiving the financial incentives to do so. (Robust controls are in the paper).

Habits are very powerful. For various reasons we don't like too much change in our life, so once we've made something into a habit we really don't like to give it up.

So what does this tell us? Sometimes, even though it may seem stupid, it's a good idea to write a contract to commit yourself or give yourself a financial incentive to start a new good habit. I used to make contracts with myself long before they came into the mainstream; and I bribe myself with Grazia to go to boxing class at 7am on a Friday.

However, keep the reward small, because you don't want to bankrupt yourself, but also because large rewards are counterproductive. (Gneezy also has a lot of research on this: the basic idea is that your brain thinks you are doing the activity to  get the reward not because you like it, but for a small reward your brain will reason that you must be enjoying it.)  

Emilie told you I was a massive geek!

Miss Haribo

Charness G, Gneezi U (2009), "Incentives to exercise", Econometrica, 77(3):909-931

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