Lead me not into temptation. For, I know the way!

So, 2020 is off to a great start? Definitely, for me.

If you know me, you know I am about as regular with my exercise habits as a certain social media company is with removing political ads from its platform. That is, we both know it is the right thing to do, and yet, we don’t do it.

But not in 2020.

I have finally put my behavioral science background to good use and figured out the sweet spot. Thanks to my interventions, now I go to the gym 3 times a week without fail, and that is a glorious 300% increase over the (very low) base I had previously.

So, what’s the science?

Well, turns out reading all that academic literature for my Masters helped! In what is now a famous paper, Katherine Milkman, Julia Minson, and Kevin Volpp introduced the world to the concept of Temptation Bundling. [1] Through a field experiment, the researchers measured the impact of bundling a want, or an instant gratification experience, with a should, or a valuable but delayed gratification experience.

Examples of want experiences would be playing a game, binge-watching a favourite show, or eating something you like. A should experience would be all those activities you would benefit from doing but don’t — or in other words, all your new year resolutions: exercising, reading, not wasting time on social media.

The study used “listening to tempting audiobooks” as a want experience and “exercising” as a should experience. In the experiment, participants are randomly assigned to one of 3 groups: a full treatment group, which provided access to tempting audiobooks, but only in the gym; an intermediate treatment group, which involved encouraging participants to restrict enjoying audio books to the gym only; and a control group, with no audiobooks.

At the end of the experiment period, participants in the full treatment and intermediate treatment groups had visited the gym on average 51% and 29% more than those in the control group, respectively. The effect did wear off with time, but surprisingly, a whopping 61% were willing to pay for gym-only access to audiobooks.

What got me to the gym

This got me thinking. I don’t watch a lot of TV shows and I hate binge-watching, but there are some shows I like — and during the holidays I found myself mindlessly watching them on my phone. In doing so, I realized these are my guilty pleasure shows — the kind I would not watch with anyone else, just me, alone, weeping at some romantic scene. And, in the middle of one extremely sappy episode, it occured to me: this is my want experience that I needed to club with my should experience of (ugh) going to the gym.

And so, these days, you will find me in the gym 3 times a week, watching Gilmore Girls (and possibly crying).

To make things more exciting, I have now timed my exercise to stop accurately half way through an episode. This way I find myself waiting for my gym time so I can see the conclusion of the story in peace. Someone asked me what happens when this show is over. Worry not, I have a list of sappy shows now, which I shall watch only alone and only at the gym!

Who said being a behavioral scientist didn’t have its benefits?

So if you are looking for ways to get your resolutions done, here’s the perfect recipe:

Identify your want experiences: the guilty pleasures, the things you love to do, the instant gratifiers.

Identify your should experiences: the boring stuff you know you need to get done, the things that will help in your future.

Now think of how you can club them!

A minute-long plank before every game you play on your phone? (I got a friend to do this!)

Instagram browsing only while on the treadmill? Youtube video binging only when you take public transport? The options are endless, the results are worthwhile. 

What’s in it for business?

Here’s where the plot gets interesting.

While I was setting myself up for this experiment, it crossed my mind that I am still dependent on my willpower to not watch Gilmore Girls outside the gym. Commitment Devices [2] such as these often work for a period of time, but given their reliance on the participant’s own self-control, there are obvious limitations. However, given people’s willingness to pay for this, it would open up an interesting opportunity for companies.

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The AI Governance Challenge

More and more people are now concerned about being fit. As per the World Health Organisation, more than a quarter of adults were insufficiently active physically [3]. Given this and the increasing trend towards fitness, companies that are traditionally in the field of providing want experiences can help consumers reach their should goals by using these insights from behavioral science.

For the longest time, new age startups and companies have been blamed for the demise of good habits. Binge watching on Netflix, bottomless scrolling on Instagram, back to back YouTube videos, ordering in instead of cooking something healthy. What should experiences can these be clubbed with, and how might companies do that?

Here are some ideas, which — like all good behavioral interventions —  would only work with the active (or even enthusiastic) consent of the consumer:

A feature on Netflix to set restricted content that can only be viewed from certain locations (e.g., the gym!) or at certain times of the day (e.g., when you go to the gym!)

A healthy eating feature for food delivery apps that hides unhealthy options from menus, or at least gives priority to more healthful options

A partnership between Uber (or any ride-sharing / taxi company) and fitness centers to offer discounted rides to and from a workout session

Additional Pokemon characters available at the gym only after a daily steps target has been met.

There are, of course, preliminary ideas, that would all have to operate on an opt-in basis. However, by acknowledging how their products are sometimes used in unhealthy ways, and taking steps to promote healthier usage, technology companies can show they are interested in their users’ wellbeing.

Having said this, I must confess, as with all behavior, I am sure people will find their ways around this. Till they don’t, this would be a great example of practical applications of using behavioral science to improve lives.

I should end now, as my episode of Gilmore Girls and a fun 30 minutes of treadmill awaits!

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