Have you ever felt a conflict between what you want to do and what you should do? For example, you may want to finish reading a book, listen to a podcast or browse the news. But really, you know you should go for a walk, get on the treadmill or make that difficult phone call.
Trying to do the shoulds on willpower alone can feel like pushing water uphill. Despite our best intentions, it can be really difficult to consistently do all the things that we know are good for us – like getting enough exercise every week, or eating our five a day. The want-should conflict can just get in the way.
What is ‘temptation bundling’?
Behavioral scientist Professor Katy Milkman has a keen interest in this aspect of behavior change and has done extensive research into ‘temptation bundling’. This is a strategy to help us change our bad habits by creatively pairing something we should do (but may want to avoid despite its long-term benefits), with something we want to (that is fun and gives instant gratification, but may not be productive).
So, the act of pairing our wants with our shoulds can take the sting out of the activity that we don’t really want to do. By bundling the two together, we can theoretically increase the virtuous behavior, while guilt or time-cost from the ‘indulgent’ behavior is decreased.
How can ‘temptation bundling’ effect behavior change in healthcare?
When it comes to healthy behaviours, the issue of self-control is by no means trivial. One study estimated that 40% of premature deaths could be associated to repeated decisions where the wants heavily outweigh the shoulds – such as eating, drinking and smoking . Favoring the want over the should is an example of present bias – in other words, favoring today over tomorrow – which can be ruinous in changing behavior.
When it comes to healthy behaviors, the issue of self-control is by no means trivial
Milkman and colleagues researched the effectiveness of temptation bundling by pairing workouts at the gym (delayed gratification) with listening to page-turning audiobooks (instant gratification). The researchers found that the treatment group – whose only opportunity to listen to audiobooks was during a workout – visited the gym 51% more than the control group. Similar findings have been found by a later study on the Step UP! Program, which had the advantage of using a lot more respondents than the original research.
However, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. First, the want has to be sufficiently tempting to the individual – audiobooks, for example, won’t cut it for everyone. Second, it necessitates finding two tasks which ‘go well’ together – having a pedicure while exercising wouldn’t be practical! And third, we have to find activities that enable our concentration to be equally applied. Listening to a podcast while doing meal prep won’t detrimentally divide our focus, but trying to read a magazine at the same time as writing a report is not advisable.
As long as we can find the perfect want-should pairings, temptation bundling can be a very effective behavior change strategy. Health-promoting behaviors can be stymied by their sheer reliance on self-control or willpower alone. Instead, we can look to learnings from behavioral science literature to help encourage the uptake of a beneficial behavior in a low-cost and effective way. The spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, both literally and figuratively!
Hall & Partners behavioral science team aim to understand what a particular, potentially negative, behavior is and how we can encourage a change to help people create better habits. If you want a better understanding of a behavioral challenge your facing, please get in touch.