Christopher Ingraham shared in The Washington Post that according to Richard Thaler, the University of Chicago economist who last year won a Nobel Prize in part for his work on the subject, a “nudge” is a policy intervention that “alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.”
Nudges are typically used to get people to do things that are good for them or for society as a whole, but which they may be otherwise disinclined to do. Famous nudges include flies painted on urinals, giving men a target to aim at and thereby reducing spillage; automatic 401(k) enrollment; and getting people to use less electricity by showing them how much their neighbors are using.
One type of nudge that has shown great promise is the planning prompt, which asks people to lay out the concrete steps they will take to achieve a certain goal. Research says these prompts are effective at getting people to do things such as vote, get their flu shots and go to the dentist.
What about going to the gym?
That’s what the team of researchers behind a new working paper set out to discover when they ran a randomized field experiment among 877 members of a private gym in the Midwest. In the realm of exercise, in particular, a notoriously large gap exists “between intentions and actions,” as the researchers put it. Most Americans know they should exercise more, but fewer than a quarter of them get the federally recommended amount of physical activity each week. A 2015 experiment conducted among workers at a Fortune 500 company found that “workers’ targeted levels of exercise are 43 percent higher than their actual levels of exercise,” according to the new paper’s authors.
The researchers recruited subjects from the gym’s active members and divided them into two groups. The treatment group was asked to fill out a schedule indicating the days and times they planned to attend the gym in the coming two weeks. A control group filled out no exercise plan, instead simply listing the number of times they had exercised in the previous two weeks. The central question: Would the people who filled out an exercise schedule go to the gym more than the people who did not?
To keep respondents honest, the researchers used the gym’s records of member check-ins to track actual exercise frequency. What they found was slightly dismaying, at least for anyone hoping to nudge themselves into exercising more: “The treatment group made an average of 2.3 visits over the two-week period, compared to an average of 2.6 for the control group,” the authors write. Statistically speaking, the difference between the two groups was zero.
The authors tried to suss out why this was. The subjects certainly believed that planning out their visits could help them exercise more: Before the study period, 60 percent of all subjects agreed with the statement “I don’t go to the gym as much as I would like because I don’t set aside time for it in my schedule; then my schedule fills up and I no longer have time to go to the gym.”
The treatment subjects also appeared to try to stick to their plans: “(S)ubjects are more than twice as likely to attend the gym on planned days than on unplanned days,” the study found.
But the researchers discovered that not all plans were fulfilled. There remained a considerable gap between a stated intent to exercise on a given day and actually showing up to the gym that day. In fact, one of the biggest predictors of overall gym attendance during the study period was not whether people made plans to visit the gym but rather how often they had visited the gym before the study period.
In other words, people already inclined to go to the gym continued to go to the gym, regardless of whether they had made concrete plans to do so or not. This creates a discouraging circularity for anyone hoping to change their exercise routine: If you want to start going to the gym, it’s best to already be going there.
Why does the nudge fail in this case? The researchers suspect that planning nudges may be more useful for one-time events, such as doctor appointments. Activities that are repeated, such as going to the gym, are easier to put off.
“Repeated behaviors like exercise … are very unlikely to produce a feeling of urgency, since many individuals likely have the mindset that they can always exercise ‘later,’” the authors explain.
Unfortunately for many of the would-be exercisers among us, that “later” never comes.