A lot of literature on behavioural change focuses on how to slowly and incrementally integrate a new behaviour into your life. Think of increasingly exercising (start slow, end up doing increasingly more), dieting (increasingly cutting calories down), starting reading ( This type of behaviour change has been widely integrated into behavioural change programs and apps targeting specific behaviours: couch to 5k is a very famous example of this: you start running a couple of laps in a semi-jogging type pace before you start hitting 1k. It’s very akin to interval training and it does work. Start small and build on that. Because starting at 5k immediately is just not an option for most people: both physically and mentally.
Another thing these behaviour change programs tend to rely on: streaks. And this is where results get a bit more murky. Not because streaks don’t work; they do. Until they don’t. Being on a streak is a massive dopamine hit. One day of running, two days of running, 3 days of running. Don’t worry if you’re not a runner – Duolingo, the language learning app works in exactly the same way. I have recently met someone who was on a 300+ day streak of learning Japanese (I know right?! So cool). Given that I know a bit more about this person’s context, I don’t think they’re likely to break their streak. But most other people are. We start new goals with a massive optimism bias. We way overestimate the amount of commitment we have to a new goal, especially when “life happens”. That’s not me attacking you – that’s how optimism bias works. And it works even stronger for goals that do not integrate into our existing structures. Anyway, getting back onto the topic of streaks: the behavioural tactic of “streaking” relies on the fact that in addition to being motivated to learn the new behaviour (form a new habit), you want to keep on this streak. Neurologically this makes perfect sense: the brain doesn’t like incompleteness. It really doesn’t. So, so far so good. Until that streak gets broken. As they often do.
Previously I wrote an article about whether the “why” is important in motivating certain behaviours. And the reason for me asking this question is that a lot of behaviour change programs tend to change the structure of the environment in such a way that the original incentive structure gets manipulated. This is also a common aspect of nudging: we change the environment, not the actual motivation at heart. Often, when the environment no longer in place to be conducive to the new behaviour, most people struggle to continue the new behaviour, especially if it hasn’t (fully) formed as a habit. How does this relate to streaks? Well, what is your motivation for going on Duolingo for the 48th day in a row? And how likely are you to do this at 10 pm after a super stressful and tiring day? Or after a mess of a week? And when a large life event happens? Life suddenly is no longer conducive to this behaviour. And the chance of breaking the streak increases. Once that streak is broken, and part of the motivation to continue the behaviour disappears (because you have to start all over again), we become rather defeatist or even fatalist in our approach to the behaviour at hand. This is the danger of extending the conditionality of a behaviour on an external motivation. Once the external motivation disappears, the behaviour becomes very difficult to continue. It need not be impossible, but that depends very much on the individual and their commitment to this specific type of behaviour, as well as the “fit” of the behaviour into the structures already in place. And that’s a lot of dependencies.
So why are we using this method to begin with? Let’s look at a completely different realm for a bit: investing. Do you know what the disposition effect is? It’s the idea that we buy stocks (or any asset really) and evaluate their performance to a reference point. Stocks that “gain” (the winners) get sold early on as a way to secure the gain. The opposite holds true as well; stocks that “lose” (the losers) are held onto: in the often vain hope that the loss (relatively to the reference point) can be made up by holding on a tad longer. And this example should tell you everything you need to know about people’s perceptions of their own behavioural change journey: we are super focused on the short-term, we see events, we don’t see trends.
In investing there are firms who’ve caught onto this and are very careful in presenting their clients with their stock portfolio returns: they present longer term horizons and try to avoid horizons and representations that trigger this overt focus on the short-term. They seem to have figured this out (somewhat). If they can do it, it’s time we learn from them and extrapolate it into different fields of behavioural change. I’m not saying that no one else is doing good work – that’s both insane and disrespectful. But as you might have gathered from those who study habits (Wendy Wood being a notable mention) as well as those who study behavioural change (Katy Milkman) and discipline and persistence (Angela Duckworth), this stuff isn’t exactly easy. My fear is that as we keep externalizing motivations and behaviour change to environmental structures, as well as this may work in the short-term, we’re only ever one event away from breaking the trend. And true behavioural change is a massively long process that requires constant commitment. And no, falling of the bandwagon every so often really isn’t the issue – as long as the trend is upwards (or downwards in terms of dieting and weight I suppose), you’re still good. It’s your perception of that one event that broke the trend that matters here. I don’t have the answer to any of this. But I would like to start a discussion about how to motivate behavioural change through trend-based motivations. And if there’s work out there which I’ve clearly just missed, please direct me to it!