Why a behavior change expert wants you to watch more trashy TV

Lauren Lazo

Dr. Katy Milkman, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, joined us as part of our Science & Snacks series in which our co-founder and Head of People Science Dr. Jessie Wisdom hosts a fireside chat with a prominent expert. 

Katy is an expert in behavior change and author of the bestselling book, How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. Her research explores how insights from economics and psychology can be harnessed to change behaviors for good, such as savings, exercise, student achievement, vaccination, and discrimination. 

Below are the key takeaways from Katy and Jessie’s discussion.

Match the solution to the obstacle

When pursuing a goal, people overwhelmingly pick the most efficient — rather than the most fun — route to success. But according to Katy, this is generally a mistake. 

Why? Because people are more likely to persist if they’re having fun. Take climbing the stairs. We‘ll jump at the chance to go up the stairs instead of taking the escalator — if the stairs have been transformed into a piano that we can play with our feet. 

This highlights the foundation of Katy’s work: matching solutions to obstacles. When we understand the barriers that stand in our way, we can more effectively devise solutions that spur change. 

During her discussion with Jessie, Katy focused on how we can overcome three of the seven internal obstacles to change: getting started, impulsivity, and confidence

The 7 obstacles to change

  1. Getting started
  2. Impulsivity
  3. Procrastination
  4. Forgetfulness
  5. Laziness
  6. Confidence
  7. Conformity

1. To get started, get the timing right

When confronted with a freshly baked cookie it's easy to say, “I’ll start my diet… tomorrow.” But this highlights a fundamental obstacle to change: How do we get started? 

Evidence shows that the “fresh start feeling” can increase motivation. This concept, as Katy points out, is why so many people create new year’s resolutions. The idea of a full, fresh 365 days to accomplish a goal fills us with optimism. But motivation spikes in other “fresh start” moments throughout the year as well — like at the beginning of the week, month, or semester, or on our birthday.  

The study: Katy and her colleagues ran an experiment to see if fresh starts could motivate more people to save for retirement. Participants were randomly divided into groups. One group received a mailer asking if they wanted to start saving now or after their next birthday — explicitly calling out a fresh start date. Another received a mailer asking if they wanted to start saving now or in 2 months — a randomly selected time in the future. 

The results: People who received the fresh start mailer enrolled in the retirement savings program at a higher rate than those who did not. They also ended up saving 20-30% more over a 9 month period!

Main takeaway: Capitalize on fresh starts to set yourself up for success.

2. To overcome impulsivity, learn from Mary Poppins

A popular Mary Poppins song teaches us that adding a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Even though Mary Poppins is a kids film, Katy highlights that adults experience the same challenges with delayed gratification. To persist, we also need to make things instantly gratifying (or sweet). 

To understand how we can add more sugar into our lives, Katy turns to Liz Lemon — the lead character on NBC’s former hit show 30 Rock. Liz Lemon is a 30-something executive who works too much, exercises too little, and is generally a disaster when it comes to self control. Based on her persona, Katy makes two assumptions about Liz:

  1. She wishes she exercised more but lacks the willpower
  2. She enjoys trashy TV shows but feels guilty wasting her time watching “junk”

Katy hypothesizes that temptation bundling — if Liz were to only allow herself to watch trashy TV while exercising — could help Liz overcome these challenges. By harnessing the power of temptation bundling, Liz might:

  • Start craving trips to the gym to find out what happens
  • Exercise longer because she is engrossed in her show
  • Not feel guilty watching the show
  • Waste less time at home since she is watched her trashy TV at the gym  

The study: But does this hypothesis hold up in the real world? Katy and her colleagues ran an experiment, titled “Holding the Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym,” to find out.

Participants were randomly assigned to either a temptation bundling or control group. The temptation bundlers picked four audiobooks to have loaded onto a loaned iPod. Those iPods were kept at the gym, so participants could only find out what happened in their books if they worked out. The control group was simply given a Barnes and Noble gift card. While the gift card would allow people to purchase audiobooks, participants were not given any stipulation around what the gift card needed to be used for.

The results: People in the temptation bundling group initially visited the gym about 50% more, and there were benefits from temptation bundling for seven weeks. 

Main takeaway: Make goal pursuit more fun with temptation bundling.

3. To build confidence, leverage the power of advice

Katy’s former postdoctoral mentee, Dr. Lauren Eskreis-Winkler realized that giving people unsolicited advice crushes their confidence. So she decided to flip the script. Instead of giving advice to people who are struggling, Lauren wanted to see what would happen if she asked these individuals to advise others. Perhaps doing so could boost their confidence and catalyze positive change.

The study: To test this hypothesis Lauren (along with Katy and other co-authors) looked at whether giving advice improves academic performance for the advisors.

High school students were randomly assigned to either an advice giving or a control group. Students in the advice giving group spent 10 minutes completing a survey that asked them to advise their younger peers on how to study more effectively. The survey included questions such as, “How do you avoid distraction?” The control group simply didn’t complete this survey. 

The results: Grades significantly improved — a 1 point increase in GPA — for the advice giving group, but not for the control group. Lauren and Katy believe this effect is due to an increase in confidence that comes from giving advice to someone in need.

Main takeaway: Being a mentor, or simply giving advice, can help you.

Change requires obstacle-tailored solutions

Katy’s work shows us that the key to changing our behavior is to first understand the barriers that stand in our way. Are we not achieving our goals because we lack the motivation to get started? Perhaps we cave too easily to impulsivity? Or maybe it's because we are feeling low on confidence? Armed with the answers to these questions, we can effectively use fresh starts, temptation bundling, and advising to get from where we are today to where we want to be.     

Want more content like this? Check out previous Science and Snacks sessions to learn how to influence people from Dr. Zoe Chance and how to build connections at work from Dr. Spenser Harrison.