NEW year resolutions may be an exercise in hope over experience but that’s because we don’t arm ourselves with the tools to get fitter and richer — and to spend more time kicking goals than playing Candy Crush. What we need is a nudge to do the right thing: someone to stand over us and give us a poke with an elbow whenever temptation overcomes good intentions. Guardian angels and stern mothers used to provide this service, but in their absence we have economists. Nudges are a big area of study today. Economists have discovered that we don’t just respond to fiscal stimuli and breakfast talks on microeconomic reform, but also to gentle hints and sensible suggestions. Brainwave, I know.
The British and US governments now employ ‘‘ nudge units’’ to encourage citizens to do things that are good for them and the government budget. These units have used revolutionary tools such as simple government forms, respectful reminders and peer pressure to get people into work and superannuation and away from fast-food counters. Numerous books have been written on sensible econ- omics (should we call it sensonomics?), but if you look at just two of them, Nudge and Simpler, you can devise a plan for sticking to your 2014 resolutions. Think of it as a microeconomic plan for yourself. First, keep it simple. If you present a complex document to average consumers, they’ll toss it in the bin or sign up for a phone plan resembling a mortgage. So forget the clauses and conditions and give it a one-line treatment.
Make a detailed plan. You have to walk yourself through your resolution — the time of day you are going to exercise, what you’re going to wear — so you have a clear idea of what your resolution is going to feel like. It’s an economic fact that detailed plans increase the success rate 20 per cent.
Write it down: some people don’t believe things until they’re on paper. They don’t even believe themselves unless they write it down. Contract lawyers understand this, behavioural economists swear by it and wayward boyfriends know to avoid it.
Penalise yourself. If you’re tossing up between rewarding yourself for good behaviour or penalising your lapses, go with the latter. People are more loss averse than reward driven. Penalties help collect company tax, they turned guardian angels into fallen angels and they’ll work for your body mass index.
Build choice architecture. This is a fancy way of saying put the good choice up front, the bad choice in the garage. So if you want to exercise every morning, put the Lycra gear where you’ll see it when you wake up; put the chocolate jar in the garage and Candy Crush on the last page of your phone screen.
Use opt-out rather than opt-in. This works for organ donation and superannuation savings and it can work for group exercise. If you commit to working out with friends, you’ll have to ring your mates if you want to opt out. You’re not going to do that — not unless you want to be pilloried for the rest of the week.
Build a supportive environment. This is economic-speak for choosing your friends well. Evidently, if you hang out with big eaters, smokers or drinkers, you’re much more likely to be a big eater, smoker and a lush. As it says in Simpler, if you want to eat less, invite someone thinner for dinner. Now, you may not have too many friends left by the end of the year, but you’ll be looking good.
Bring the future forward. We have trouble imagining our future selves: when the chocolate bar is in front of us, we see that; we don’t see the double chin the chocolate bar will create next month. So, here’s a novel way of incorporating this into your microeconomic plan: take a photo of yourself, get a clever kid to Photoshop it so you look 10kg heavier and pin that to the chocolate jar.
OK, we’ve got the toolbox, it’s time to commit to the resolution. Time to turn the wisdom that’s used for gross domestic products and Gini coefficients into a plan for BMIs and liver functions. And don’t fret, you’re not turning into a Homo economus, you’re making economics more Homo sapiens.