At the entrance of my supermarket is a homeless person selling De Daklozenkrant. Whenever I buy one of these newspapers I also come home with more potato chips and chocolate bars. If you have similar experiences, you are not the only one. However, you can use such tempting habits to start and maintain healthy habits.

Golden Behaviors

– Nudges for a Healthy Lifestyle –

Reading time: 6 minutes

At the entrance of my supermarket is a homeless person selling De Daklozenkrant. The purpose of De Daklozenkrant is to provide homeless and particularly poor people with a way to provide for themselves. Sometimes, but not always, I buy one of these newspapers to support this person and when I buy one of these newspaper, I feel better about myself. However, I have recently noticed that when I buy one of these newspapers I also come home with more potato chips and chocolate bars.

A license to sin

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Yale University found in a series of studies that people are more likely to buy an indulgent product if they previously expressed an altruistic intent in a different domain. For example, they asked participants to imagine that they had volunteered to spend three hours a week doing community service. They were asked to consider two community services: “teaching children in a homeless shelter” and “improving the environment”. Participants were then much more likely to buy a pair of designer jeans (a luxury item) than a vacuum cleaner (a necessity) compared to a control group that had not expressed an altruistic intent.

This is what Khan and Dhar call the licensing effect: people act as if one good deed gives them a license to sin. In my case specifically, my (relatively modest) good deed of buying De Daklozenkrant for €2.50, unconsciously gives me permission to spend an additional €10 on potato chips and chocolate bars.

The licensing effect was also found by a group of researchers investigating the effects of dietary supplements. They found that people taking dietary supplements were less healthy than people who were not taking such supplements. This is not because of the dietary supplements themselves, but because the tendency of people taking them to license themselves to subsequent self-indulgent choices. People who take multivitamin pills, are more prone to subsequently engage in unhealthy activities. They tend to smoke more cigarettes and are more likely to believe that they are  invulnerable to harm, injury and disease. This is especially true for those who believe that they are receiving significant health benefits from supplement use. Thus, due to the licensing effect, the use of dietary supplements does not seem to be improving public health.

Combining what’s good in the long run, with what’s good in the short run

Showing altruistic behavior or picking up a good behavior does not give you permission to perform a bad behavior or a bad habit at the same time. However, you can also use this principle of the licensing effect and tweak it into a motivating and rewarding practice. When you combine what is good for you in the long run with what is good for you in the short run, you can allow yourself short term temptations. In this way, you can indulge in buying a luxury product or a chocolate bar, when you link it to a behavior which has long term benefits, such as a healthier diet or more exercise.

This is exactly what psychologist Katie Milkman and her colleagues did when they encouraged temptation bundling for going to the gym. They distinguish between want behaviors and should behaviors. Want behaviors are hedonic behaviors that satisfy you in the short run, such as watching TV or eating chocolate. This provides an initial boost in enjoyment, but in the long run this leads to long-term costs, such as guilt and wasted time (see top part of the figure below). Should behaviors, on the other hand, are behaviors that benefit you in the long run, such as paying taxes, exercising, studying for your exam. This comes with some initial pain of execution, but in the long run this leads to long-term benefits, such as pride and health (see bottom part of the figure below). The idea is that by strategically combining enjoyment and pain of execution leads to overall positive effect.

Temptation bundling = strategically combining Wants (top) and Shoulds (bottom), which lead to an overall positive effect. Source: Milkman et al., 2013.

Milkman and her colleagues found that people exercised more often when access to a want (a tempting audio novel) was denied to people unless they engaged in a should behavior (visiting the gym). Some gym-goers received four tempting audiobooks of their choice (e.g., The Hunger Games, The Da Vinci Code) and were encouraged to listen to the audiobooks only while exercising at the gym. Compared to participants in a control condition who received an equally valued gift card to Barnes & Noble and no instructions about temptation bundling, those encouraged to temptation bundle visited the gym more often, especially towards the end of the four week period. The people who where using temptation bundling, were much more likely to start and maintain higher levels of exercising at the gym compared to people not using temptation bundling (see figure below).

People who where using temptation bundling, were much more likely to start and maintain higher levels of exercising at the gym compared to people not using temptation bundling. Source: Kirgios, et al., 2020.

I personally like to listen to podcasts from the behavioral sciences, such as Choiceology, Freakonomics Radio, or It’s All Just a Bunch of B(ehavioral) S(cience), but I never seem to find the time. So, I started listening to podcasts while running outside. Now, I am anxious to get outside again, because I want to now how the current episode ends or look forward to the next episode!

Temptation bundling in all aspects of your life

You can use temptation bundling in all aspects of our lives, be it to improve your eating habits or your exercise regimen.

  1. First, remember to combine wants with shoulds, in order to make the should more appealing. This pairing makes should activities more tempting and therefore more likely to be executed; it also makes want activities less wasteful and less guilt-inducing. This makes behaviors with delayed benefits more instantly-gratifying.
  2. Second, remember that you are capable of setting and following rules to overcome present bias. People have the tendency to dramatically overweigh immediate rewards relative to delayed rewards (known as present bias), people often choose wants over shoulds in the heat of the moment, only to regret their decisions later. However, learning about temptation bundling, allows you to overcome present bias by combining what’s good in the long run, with what’s good in the short run.

For example, if you go running, then you can listen to your favorite … (fill in your favorite songs, audio books, podcasts, etc.). Or, if you do the dishes right after diner, then you are entitled to your favorite … (fill in you favorite treat, coffee, sweet, etc.). When working from home and put in an hour of hard work, then you can have your first (fill in what you crave in the morning, such as a coffee, a cookie, a bowl of cereal, etc.). In this way you can use a tempting habit to start a healthy habit..

When I visit the supermarket nowadays, I am consciously applying temptation bundling. I can only buy additional potato chips and chocolate bars proportional to the amount I spend on De Daklozenkrant. In this way, my indulgence about chips and chocolate supports the homeless and limits my indulgences at the same time.

Using a Tempting Habit to Start a Healthy Habit Click To Tweet

Niels Vink (1975) is author of Golden Behaviors and behavioral designer. He uses insights from the behavioral sciences to explain why people often act against their own interests. As a behavioral expert, he explores how you can nudge your behavior for a healthy lifestyle. He has Master degrees in Social Psychology (Leiden University) and Industrial Design Engineering (Delft University of Technology) and holds a PhD in Consumer Behavior.When you have been inspired to start and maintain your Golden Behaviors, reach out to me.

Source of top image: Niels Vink


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