POINT OF VIEW
“I myself am made entirely of flaws stitched together with good intentions”. -Augusten Burroughs
D. Soman + Kim Ly
WE INVITE THE READER TO PAUSE FOR A
and think of instances in which MOMENT you set out to accomplish a particular goal or task, but failed. We suspect that it would not be difficult for most people to identify more than one such instance. Indeed, our research and work with organizations in business, government and welfare domains has convinced us that failing to adhere to our good intentions is a hallmark of being human.
Setting and accomplishing goals has always been a fundamental driver of human behaviour. Goals can run the gamut from running a marathon to learning a new language to completing an exercise or weight loss regimen. They can even be as relatively mundane as waiting in line to obtain a service, completing a transaction at a bank, or finishing up the draft of an article by its deadline. Indeed, there is a very active section of human enterprise— productivity gurus, ‘life hackers’, personal coaches, apps, advisors and self-help books—dedicated to helping us set goals, make plans and execute on those plans.
Yet, as indicated, we do not often succeed at completing the things we set out to do. Some of us never even get started, while for many others, motivation (and hence per- formance) flags in the middle of the task. Author Martha Wells described this common ‘flagging motivation’ in a recent essay:
Writing the beginning of a book is exciting; everything is new, you’re creating the world, meeting the characters for the first time. The end is also exciting, because all the plot threads are tying up and you should be done soon. The middle is the hard part, where you have to make the magic happen and start pulling things together.”
This ‘middle slump’, as researchers call it, happens with all sorts of tasks. Research by one of us (Prof. Soman, with Joonkyung Kim, Rotman PHD ‘18), as well as earlier research by Northwestern University researchers Andrea Bonezzi, Miguel Brendl and Matteo deangelis showed that due to the middle slump, people are more likely to perform poorly, to procrastinate and delay, and perhaps even drop out altogether around the midpoint of a task.
Research in Behavioural Economics not only documents the existence of a gap between people’s intentions and actions, it also proposes an explanation for why this gap occurs. One central model first proposed by Nobel Laureate Richard Thaler and Hersh Shefrin is called ‘The Planner– Doer Model’ of human behaviour. It argues that the human
apparatus can be divided into the planner, an entity that is forward looking, wise and makes plans that are in the best interest of the human; and the doer, who has to execute on all these plans, but being attached to a human being, is impulsive, short-sighted, boundedly rational and often has to deal with many competing goals and activities.
The interplay between the planner and the doer within each of us is best understood from a simple example. Imagine that the planner within ‘Jack’ thinks about the future and recognizes the need to save for retirement. The planner in him has every intention of increasing his savings rate at the earliest opportunity. Advisors, self-help books and other products and services are great at helping people like Jack define and prioritize worthy goals and lay out the sub-tasks required to achieve them; but they are not great at helping Jack and others actually accomplish their goals.
That’s because, when it comes time to take a required action (i.e., to speak with a wealth manager), the doer in Jack takes over and gets waylaid by competing priorities, or might choose to procrastinate because retirement is actually pretty far off and increasing his savings today just doesn’t seem as urgent as some of his other priorities. Alternatively, doers might get started and complete some of the tasks required to complete a goal, but as indicated, get waylaid in the middle.
So, how can we help the doer within each of us stay on track when our performance and motivation start to flag in the middle of completing our goals? The fact is, planners are always at a disadvantage, because their contribution precedes the doer’s, and hence the planner has no actual control over what the doer does. However, a crafty planner can anticipate his/her doer’s behaviour—and proactively use a self-control device to impose a constraint on the doer’s behaviour.
Consider a product called Clocky— an alarm clock that literally runs away from sleepy fingers seeking the snooze button, hiding under nearby furniture. A planner like ‘Jill’ could invest in a product like Clocky to constrain the doer within her. After all, by the time Jill finds Clocky under her dresser and silences the alarm, she will probably be so awake and alert that it would be difficult to snooze again. Or consider Ksafe— a cookie jar-style container with a timercontrolled lock that one of the authors (to remain unnamed) has used successfully to lock away mobile phones and other potential distractions in order to focus on completing tasks such as writing this article.
Perhaps the two most famous examples of self-control devices come from the domain of online commerce and financial products. The website Stickk.com was developed by behavioural economist Dean Karlan. On it, users can sign up and pre-commit to achieving any goal — for example, finishing up the draft of a manuscript by a given date. The website assigns the user a coach, a ‘cheering squad’, and a judge who will eventually certify that the goal has been achieved. Importantly, failure to achieve a goal often has a monetary consequence: Up front, users are asked how much the accomplishment of the goal means to them in monetary terms, and if they fail, they must pay Stickk that amount. If this happens, Stickk donates the amount to a charity—but not one of the user’s choice. Instead, the funds go to an organization that the user will likely be opposed to. A recent visit to the Stickk.com website indicates that there were upwards of $35 million worth of contracts and about 402,000 commitments in place at this point in time.
Another popular tool is the Save More Tomorrow (SMART) program developed by Richard Thaler and Shlomo Benartzi, which addresses the fact that while a vast majority of Americans say they would like to save more, only a small fraction of them actually do so. The most common reason for not saving more relates to present needs, in that the act of saving more would imply a drop in current consumption. Employees who sign up to a SMART program make a commitment to save more—not today, but later. In particular, they commit to setting aside a percentage of each and every future salary increase in a separate savings account. For these employees, the act of saving more does not imply consuming less. In addition, the doer in them doesn’t have to do anything to increase contributions, and in this sense, the savings product removes the ability of the doer to ‘mess up’. Recent estimates suggest that the Save More Tomorrow program alone might be responsible for an increase of about $29.6 billion in retirement savings since its inception.
The research on the intention-action gap is clear: The majority of us have good intentions to do a number of good things, eat healthier food, exercise daily, quit smoking, learn new skills and spend more time with our families. But generally speaking, we tell ourselves that we will start tomorrow. One important corollary of this insight is the limit on the effectiveness of financial literacy interventions. In BEAR’S [Behavioural Economics in Action at Rotman] ongoing work in the area of financial well-being, we have found that
Planners are always at a disadvantage, because their contribution precedes the Doer’s.
financial education is not enough: We need to go beyond that and take steps to facilitate behaviour.
Our experience across a broad swathe of behaviourchange challenges suggests that there are three segments of people.
These are people who make sure MOTIVATED ENTHUSIASTS. they act on plans at the soonest possible opportunity.
These are people who might be opposed DIEHARD OPPONENTS. to the behaviour change that is being asked of them, based on personal beliefs or philosophical grounds.
The third segment is perhaps the largest, NAIVE INTENDERS. most insidious and therefore the most ignored segment: These are people who believe in what is being asked of them and fully plan to do it, but their intentions might never convert into action.
In general, we need to do very little about the motivated enthusiasts, except to reinforce their behaviours; and we might be able to use education and evidence to convert diehard opponents. The segment that we need to focus our attention on are the naive intenders, who will not be influenced by education or evidence. Put simply, these people need help to make things happen.
The first step for any self-control product is to get people to pre-commit to future actions that will help them accomplish their goal. Research shows that people are very willing to commit—as long as the task doesn’t have to be done right away, in the moment. The second step is to impose a ‘lock’ on the doer’s behaviour. Locks can be technological (Clocky), behavioural (Save More Tomorrow), contractual (stickk.com) or social interventions (e.g., buddy-based savings schemes where people cannot withdraw money without a second person knowing about it). Or, they can take the form of a literal lock—as in the ksafe example mentioned earlier.
At BEAR, we conduct an annual Market for SelfControl challenge in which student teams from across the University of Toronto pitch new product concepts to a jury of judges drawn from the business, academic, policy and start-up communities. Winning teams from the past have included the ‘Nudge Ring’, a motion sensor embedded in a ring that alerts a compulsive skin-picker who is looking to reduce their scratching behaviour, and ‘AVAIL’, a digital solution that helps families cut down on Internet usage. Other products and services have targeted distracted driving, interrupting people in meetings, sedentary lifestyles, medication adherence and low savings rates, to name a few.
The market for self-control is large and growing, and the dollar estimates of the impact of Stickk and SMART show its potential. Given the growth of such innovative tools and the simultaneous increase in distractions in today’s world, we believe that the intention-action gap will only increase over time, opening up significant opportunity for innovators.
Governments and businesses are only beginning to take notice of this significant and unmet market opportunity. Will we soon see a self-control aisle in our local Walmart, or will the development of self-control products remain in the realm of start-ups and academic institutions? Will consumers develop the foresight to be able to anticipate the need for such products and determine their value? Will investors fund products that—ironically—will only be deemed a success when they are not needed anymore?
Only time will tell. But in the meantime we can prescribe the following plan of action with relative certainty: The next time you think about an important long-term goal, make a public pre-commitment to it and identify a suitable ‘lock’ to bind your future self to getting it done.
The first step for any self-control product is to get people to pre-commit to future actions.
Dilip Soman is Professor and Canada Research Chair in Behavioural Science and Economics, and Academic Director of Behavioural Economics in Action at Rotman (BEAR). He is the author of The Last Mile: Creating Social and Economic Value from Behavioral Insights (Rotman-utp Publishing, 2015). Kim Ly (Rotman MBA ‘08) is a Research Fellow at BEAR and a lecturer at The Rotman School. For more findings from BEAR, visit www.rotman.utoronto.ca/bear