Boost your willpower muscle

by Jane Clifton / 26 November, 2011
Once seen as a dark art, the ability to change certain behaviours can be a big part of success in life.

The tower-block home of the Electricity Authority in downtown Wellington may not look like Willpower Central, but it’s the nerve centre of a major coup in the art of persuasion.

The power industry watchdog managed to persuade so many people to save on their power bills by switching companies this year that the campaign was a significant factor in depressing inflation below expectations and keeping interest rates down.

That’s not just electricity – that’s real power. The authority knew through its research that changing power companies was something most people were strongly averse to doing. They thought this would be boring, intimidating, time-consuming, complicated, risky and not worth much of a saving – all formidable barriers.

But the story of how the authority’s What’s My Number? advertisements overcame those barriers is increasingly typical of a new approach – used by both companies and public agencies – of applying behavioural science to such problems.

Perhaps the most famous incidence of this is the establishment by the UK’s Cameron Government of a behavioural research agency, now popularly called the Nudge Unit, after the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Welfare and Happiness, which gave policymakers a road map to “change architecture”. Authors Richard Thaler, distinguished service professor at the University of Chicago, and Cass Sunstein, who’s on leave from his professorship at Harvard Law School while he works in the Obama administration, argue the popular and political inertia stopping social and environmental problems being addressed can be countered by applying well-founded psychological “nudge” techniques.

The UK Government is – controversially – trialling the authors’ blueprint on what’s now often called “choice architecture”, rather than behavioural science, to frame and implement tricky policies, including green measures. Nudge is one of several recent tracts that have given governments, corporates and even the humble weight-watcher, procrastinator and couch potato useful insights into the inertia and internal conflict infesting humans’ attempts to make positive changes, large and small, individually and collectively.

Another is Willpower, by psychologist Roy Baumeister, to be published here early next year, which uses extensive clinical studies to argue that willpower is like a muscle – easily fatigued, but able to be strengthened with carefully metered training. Using data, including from the University of Otago’s longitudinal study, Baumeister also shows that self-control, rather than the much-touted self-esteem, is the clearest determinant for success over a person’s lifetime.

And brain-imaging studies at America’s Weil Cornell Medical College this year have shown neural activity in people with willpower is distinctly different in those who lack it. When the strong-willed were offered a temptation, their ­prefrontal cortex sent a “calm down” message to other parts of the brain responsible for those “I want it now” urges. Researchers at New York’s Columbia University have even sent tiny electrical shocks to parts of the brain of weak-willed subjects, and created a will to save. And at Claremont Graduate University in California, trials have found the “love” hormone oxytocin, administered to people feeling strong temptation, can calm the “want it now” urge among shoppers. Alas, that’s all still only possible in the laboratory. Whether future naughty spenders will be able to receive brain-retraining treatment – or inhale emergency hormone doses before they hit the shops – is in the lap of academia’s neuro-economics experts.

The Electricity Authority – obviously not empowered to be a Nudge architect – used advertising agency DraftFCB, which specialises in applying social science-based techniques to advertising campaigns. These include the Ministry of Health’s campaign for depression, fronted by former All Black John Kirwan.

In the past, Draft has used extensive anthropological studies of New Zealanders’ character and priorities. But its planning director, David Thomason, says the agency has made a long study of behavioural science – of which the new so-called “behaviour economics” tracts like Nudge are but a recent evolution. He says psychologists have always had a lot to teach both advertising and public policymakers about the art of persuasion. Foundation thinking in the area came in the 1980s in the form of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by psychologist Robert Cialdini, who itemised the factors that caused or inhibited people’s responses to various persuasive techniques. Cialdini’s list is still widely seen as a gold standard in the arts of persuasion. People respond on the basis of:

  • reciprocity – whether they feel obliged or indebted to the persuader;

  • commitment and consistency – people like to see themselves as consistent, so if they can be persuaded to state their intention to do something, either orally or in writing, they are more likely to go through with it;

  • social “proof” – if other people are doing it, it must be the thing to do. Seeing that something is already popular or normal is a strong motivator, resonating with people’s urge to conform;

  • authority – strong, respected or commanding figures can motivate people to do things, as most infamously demonstrated in the Milgram experiments in the 1960s, when volunteers delivered (secretly false) electric shocks to others because they were told they must comply with the experiment. Hardly any resisted or questioned the instructions, even when it appeared they were causing terrible suffering;

  • liking – people are readily persuaded by those they like. A favourite Cialdini example is Tupperware parties, where plastic ware is sold at friends’ houses, so the salesperson becomes a temporary “friend”, and everyone wants to make the party a success; and

  • scarcity – representing something as hard to get or in limited supply can motivate people to want it; “time is running out” is a popular advertising injunction.

Thomason has distilled some further categories, including people’s need to display and reinforce their own sense of self and identity – both internally and outwardly. He says this urge doesn’t need to be rational. He cites nappy advertising, which typically only says that mums love their babies. “We feel compelled to signal our membership of a particular group – ‘I’m a good mum, I love my baby.’” He says those ads are not telling us anything else, like “these are good nappies” or even “buy these nappies”, but they do have an effect on parents.

The drive to self-advertise is strong – though we’re not always honest with ourselves about it. “I might tell myself I’m choosing the new Ferrari because it handles well and holds its value – but in reality I might be choosing it because I think it might make me look good to women.” Thomason says words chime powerfully and subconsciously with persuadees. In America, the Republicans cleverly phrased their fiscal policy as “providing tax relief”, and the Democrats, unhelpfully to their own cause, found themselves using the word “relief”, too. Notoriously, then-President Richard Nixon said, “I am not a crook”, neatly planting the bald word “crook” in voters’ minds, where it hadn’t been before.

There’s also how the persuader frames the pitch to the persuadee. Thomason instances a gelato shop that offers a monster cone for $16, and a large for $6.50. “I’ve never seen anybody take the $16 one, but it makes the $6.50 one seem quite reasonable, when in reality it’s pretty big.” A further persuasion technique is “chunking”, an important aspect of the electricity-switch campaign. It means breaking your suggestion down into manageable steps, so the persuadee feels less daunted about at least taking the first step.

For policymakers, even consumer inertia can be harnessed in some circumstances. A good example is the plan to automatically enrol all employees in KiwiSaver, on the assumption that most won’t get around to opting out of it, and by the time they see their savings grow, they won’t want to.

But a new heavy hitter in the behavioural science armoury is actually an old favourite long fallen out of vogue. Standing in tandem with the new jargon – “choice architecture”, “change-management” and “attention economics” – is good old willpower. As Baumeister’s book chronicles, it was a concept beloved of the Victorians, who held that work, enterprise and self-sacrifice were the way to rewards and success, but it fell out of favour with recent generations. Perhaps because they were given too little carrot and too much stick by their Victorian and Edwardian parents, later generations preferred the notion of self-esteem over willpower as the key to an individual’s success.

Baumeister was pro-self-esteem in his early career, but eventually decided it was counterproductive unless powered by praise harnessed to actual achievement. Too often, parents praised children mindlessly, whereas praise and reward packed power only when it came conditional on effort and accomplishment. A major breakthrough in Baumeister’s studies came when it was realised through longitudinal studies that young children who were able to delay gratification – for example, putting off eating one lolly immediately in exchange for being allowed two in 10 minutes’ time – grew up to be more successful adults than those who took the single lolly straight away.

But Baumeister says our ability to exert willpower is not set in concrete, and it can be developed with judicious exercise. Small daily habit changes, even just one at a time, can build up your overall resolve. The habit doesn’t even need to be directly related to your biggest failings. A study in which participants were asked simply to improve their posture as often as possible throughout the day yielded the surprising result that this exercise led to other unrelated habits being improved. Conversely, too broad an attempt at habit-changing, and too much general decision-making in the course of a day, will deplete a person’s resolve.

An important step in understanding that willpower is exhaustible came when researchers discovered the neuro-biology behind it. Subjects pre-fatigued with challenging tasks, such as an unsolvable puzzle, but given a glucose-boosting drink displayed stronger resolve later than those not given the drink. Decision-making and exerting one’s will actually depletes blood glucose. A sound diet that provides steady blood sugar levels and replenishes them regularly can help maintain willpower.

But the field of applied behavioural science is not without controversy, boiling down, as it does, to leading largely unsuspecting people by the nose. Thomason says persuasion is often thought of as “a dark art … You’re trying to make people do things they don’t necessarily want to do. Or that they don’t want to do now.”

Critics have challenged the “libertarian paternalism” of the Nudge movement, with its focus on changing behaviour “in the person’s best interest”, arguing such determinations are ethically risky, especially in political hands. Manipulating people into saving, eating vegetables or recycling their waste may be in their best interests, but the temptation to escalate the manipulation to make something compulsory or to punish people for not complying could become a concern.

However, University of Auckland associate professor of psychology Niki Harré says the general Nudge ethos is a no-brainer. “We all use our knowledge of each other to persuade each other to our point of view all the time. The argument that we shouldn’t use this knowledge to change people’s behaviour, that it’s somehow unethical, just doesn’t hold up. Com­panies like Coca-Cola have been using it for years. Often people know they’re being manipulated, and it still works.”

But she says change is a huge challenge for humans, because it’s hard for us to realise how slight our conscious control of our decision-making really is. “The idea that we are all ‘choosing’ people, that we have such power, is misleading. It’s not a meaningful way to describe a human being.”

Harré says that of the conscious and subconscious levels people operate on, the latter is by far the most influential and in turn is influenced by factors we’re not remotely aware of. “Even at a basic level, we are, unconsciously, asking ourselves what’s the right thing to do – when we walk down the street, or into a shop, ‘What is the right way for me to behave in this shop?’ We are constantly responding to physical or environmental clues, and our subconscious is making decisions without our realising it.”

Although much of this seems like brain-saving auto-pilot stuff – such as walking, driving or eating – without consciously having to think how, when and what to move, this automatic decision-making process extends into other decisions we think of as conscious choices, Harré says. We don’t realise how much choice-making information is absorbed subconsciously, she argues, citing fashion, which profoundly influences the perceptions of even those who believe they take no interest in it.

“It’s not just the person who is trying to look like the latest fashionable celebrity. We all absorb this information about what looks right so deeply, that when we look at, say, a photo from the 1970s, it jars our aesthetic senses – yet we haven’t consciously chosen to see it that way. We have absorbed that change in aesthetic sense without realising it.”

It’s only when we consciously try to change a habit that we become aware of the strength and variety of subconscious influences at work. “You might have decided to diet, and you’re sure that you have absolutely decided to lose weight. But at the same time, this other insistent voice will be telling you how utterly ridiculous it is to diet. It’s a very strong voice, and it seems to be yours. But you thought you had decided to diet. You realise you’re a divided self. We often do things we know are stupid, and then we say, ‘What was I thinking? Why on earth did I do that?’ Which, when you think about it, is such a bizarre thing. You’re asking yourself why you did something.”

Harré says this underscores how dubious the concept of human choice really is. A person trying to quit smoking, for instance, has numerous cues and voices – activities associated with smoking, beliefs that smoking helps in given situations. Strong inner voices bombard the change-seeker. But it’s not all hopeless, she says. The more people get to grips with behavioural science and the way the brain works, the more equipped they will become to make good choices and resist the poorer, subconsciously driven choices.

One key weapon may be to harness the power of imitation. Harré says there’s growing evidence that aping others is the most potent form of learning. Experiments in which one person copies another have shown that the same parts of the brain are engaged in both people. Aping is our primary early drive toward learning, and remains a powerful force through our lives. Psychologists and sports trainers have had striking and sometimes even instant results by showing people mocked-up videos of themselves doing the things they long to do.

Harré gives the example of a young child who for 18 months refused to utter a word at school. A psychologist took her to her classroom when it was empty and got her to speak, then edited the video to make it look as though the other children were in the classroom. Just being able to see herself doing something she thought was beyond her broke the barrier, and she was able to speak at school.

“Sometimes this technique can ‘over-write’ what’s in our brains.” But more often, changing a habit takes weeks, even months. We have the change, and how difficult it is, at the forefront of our conscious thought for a long time before our neural pathways become rewired and we no longer need to think consciously about not doing the habit.

Willpower vs procrastination

How to manage to do those things you’re finding difficult.

Adman David Thomason reckons one of the most surprising things he has found in his voyage through human behavioural science is how counter­intuitive some of it is. Often, what we think is going on in our brains is the opposite of our real problem. Take the No 1 problem in this area: procrastination. “The root cause of it turns out not to be laziness but impulsiveness,” Thomason exclaims. “We’re hard-wired from caveman days to be impulsive as a matter of survival, and while it’s now counterproductive in a lot of situations, we’re still very prone to it.

“And it turns out that the excuse we often use for procrastinating – we’re perfectionistic and are worried the thing we’re putting off won’t be perfect – is wrong, too.” As business and psychology researcher Piers Steel says in his recent book, The Procrastination Equation, ancient man was designed to hunt, gather, eat and mate the instant a chance to do so arose, because an opportunity lost could mean the difference between living and dying out. We’ve outgrown this need, but it’s still factory-programmed into the brain.

Steel’s theory, after years of work on human motivation – and the lack of it – is backed by numerous trials and meta-analyses, and boils down to the fact many of us are not wired to delay our gratification. We really have to work at it. If a task isn’t going to produce an immediate result, we find it hard to nag or shame ourselves into doing it – until the last minute when the benefit, and potential sanction for not doing it, is breathing down our neck.

A further part of the procrastination picture is our level of expectation. If we expect to hate the task, or don’t expect we can do it well, we will put it off – even if it is still vital to our well-being, such as doing our GST return, seeing the dentist or cleaning out the fridge. Also crucial is the value we place on the task we’re putting off. If we don’t think something is worth the effort, such as looking into changing power companies to save a few dollars, we won’t bother – even if we know a saving will benefit us and it’s always well worth saving money.

Add time to the mix, including our self-deluding assessments of how long a task will take, and we can stage a four-way mental tug-of-war about some of our most crucial decisions and tasks. Steel says it’s a complex equation: expectancy and value, divided by impulsiveness and time – and the result has to be weighted differently according to ­people’s tendencies, because there are various kinds of procrastination.

But he offers remedies – some along the same lines as Roy Baumeister’s Willpower methods. A will to do something we don’t want to do can be strengthened – but only over time, and with a series of small steps rather than a binge of activity. Like Baumeister, Steel says resolve is easily depleted. Among his recommendations for chronic procrastinators is a process of comparative visualisation – designed to put them into a longer-term frame of reference. These putter-offers should vividly visualise their better future, with their pension savings/completed novel/fit body in it. But with equal intensity, they also need to imagine the alternative – a penurious old age, the bitter regrets of never having tried to write, failing health. He says it’s vital to do both, because just imaging the good bit can be so gratifying it can sap resolve. We have to contrast that with the grim reality of what will happen if we continue to procrastinate.

Other procrastination-beaters include developing a realistic sense of optimism – Steel says people can develop a chronic sense of discouragement, which disconnects them from their ability to achieve and can turn into learned helplessness – and developing the habit of chronicling one’s successes. As is advocated time and again in the new behavioural science texts, taking baby steps forward and recognising that those steps are important, rather than trying for quantum leaps, is one of the keys to success.

Just as Baumeister advocates picking one or two small, even tangential, habits to change, University of Otago health campaigner Professor Doug Sellman recommends not trying to reform everything about one’s lifestyle at once. Although his specialist field is alcohol addiction and alcohol law reform, Sellman is also active in anti-obesity advocacy, and wrote an anti-diet book, Real Weight Loss, based on both his research and his own experience.

He says changing just a couple of habits at a time – say, cutting out a fattening afternoon tea, and going for a walk each day – is the only way to guarantee success. Then when those habits are bedded in, add another one or two. There are only so many habits we can realistically change at a time, because our self-control is a limited commodity. “And our environment gives us cues that we’re not even necessarily aware of. It’s only by over­riding those cues and developing new habits over time that we can achieve long-term weight loss.”

Sellman also agrees that once a person has mastered one new good habit, or dispatched a bad one, it gets easier. The willpower “muscle” gains strength. This may partly be because a success adds a feel-good factor, which, in Procrastination Equation terms, makes us place higher value on the next task, and gives us a higher expectation of succeeding with it. This can escalate to what Steel calls “a spiral of success”.

Another take on this is the carrot-and-stick approach flourishing, chiefly via the internet, under the broad heading of feedback loop. People are having success in involving others in their endeavours, by setting up a system of monitoring by others online. Thomason says people can even provide a disincentive to failure if they, say, want to lose weight by setting up a system that will automatically publish a hideous photo of themselves if they don’t reach a desired target.

He says the technique taps into our “herding” instinct and our wish to conform, in that we are acting as part of a group to whom we want to seem successful and normal. And it tweaks our sense of self-definition, and our wish to believe in ourselves as consistent. Once we have told all those people we intend to do X, we are much more likely to do it.

Perhaps the most visible feedback-loop system in public policy terms is the electronic “Your speed” road signs. The reason this type of feedback loop works is they are immediate, giving real-time information; they are personalised, as it’s “your” speed that is being revealed; and they include an immediate prompt, both tacit – even if you’re not speeding, you are more likely to reconsider how appropriate your speed is – and the explicit – if you are speeding, the sign changes to a strobing “Slow down!”

First trialled in California, in a school district where even heavy ticket blitzes had not slowed traffic, the signs’ effectiveness was a surprise, since they weren’t telling drivers anything they couldn’t already find out from looking at their speedometers. But in busting into the driver’s headspace directly, and with a real-time, personalised message and a prompt, the signs gave people a cue to do the right thing.

Technology magazine Wired recently reported this general three-step technique has blossomed into all manner of personal monitoring and feedback devices, enabled by a fall in the price of various types of sensory equipment. Personal trainers have long known that a high-tech heart-rate monitor that also counts distance and calories, and even a simple pedometer that measures footfalls, can get novice fitness-seekers into the ingrained-habit zone, because of their instant feedback, the opportunity to compare and measure their progress over the longer term, and the immediately gratifying novelty of the gadget. Along these lines, the electronics market is increasingly developing green aides for home energy-monitoring systems.

It’s now possible to buy a device that, used in tandem with any household appliance, tells you which are power-guzzlers. Parents can encourage children with the Green Goose, which gives them points toward a desirable online gaming site, accrued by doing chores and healthy activities like cycling, cleaning their teeth and walking the dog. And Glow-cap containers pulse, play music and finally generate reminder texts to forgetful or recalcitrant medication-takers, an approach Wired reports has proven more successful than showing them shocking cautionary photos, or browbeating them with dire consequences.

Power to the people

The Electricity Authority’s consumer-price-index-nudging campaign followed decades of inertia among electricity consumers – frustrating the intention behind reform of the electricity sector. There were competitive companies, and there was a market – but consumers just weren’t playing ball. The only time there was a significant migration of electricity subscribers was when Contact Energy put up its prices and gave its directors a big pay increase, prompting some customers to switch to rivals in protest.

The authority’s job is to foster competition in the industry, and since its birth a year ago, it quickly identified the biggest barrier as consumer inertia. Prices could come down, but only if consumers showed they would shop around for the best rates. Working with the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, it commissioned research on the barriers to deal-shopping. The authority worked out that on average, a household could save $150 a year by switching supplier.

But just telling them that wouldn’t be enough. Advertising agency DraftFCB argued it needed to pitch the information in a way that would motivate people to take at least one small step towards looking at their power-supply deal. The agency had to make that step easy and tempting, and had to ensure that, having taken that step, taking the next few steps – shopping around, and possibly switching companies – would be equally easy, as well as quick, appealing and non-intimidating.

Draft’s David Thomason says another breakthrough the authority needed to make was in the “herding” category – making an activity that hadn’t been “normal” come to be seen as normal. The image of folk wandering about happily with numbers Post-it-noted to their foreheads was the start of that journey.

The proof of the pudding is in the statistics for the What’s My Number? and Powerswitch sites. From the campaign’s launch at the end of May till the first week of November, What’s My Number? received nearly 552,000 visits, more than 420,000 of them “unique” or one-time hits. People spent an average of 2 minutes and 37 seconds on the site, and then an impressive 260,000 clicked through to Powerswitch. In total, the Powerswitch site netted more than 450,000 visits, and 214,948 people switched power companies – not counting some 40,000 switches still in the pipeline as at November 6 – a rise of 32% over the same period in 2010.

Programme and procurements manager Todd Hollings says the Electricity Authority is understandably delighted with the results. Although the campaign period did coincide with extra economic uncertainty, meaning people were more inclined generally to shop around for bargains, there’s no doubt the campaign hit its mark. The power companies responded rapidly by advertising their best deals, and the lasting legacy is a less “sticky” electricity consumer.


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