At our lab, we’re interested in what kinds of tools people can use to make better decisions and reach their goals. When we decided to take part in this year’s Color Run, we tried to use some of these tools on ourselves to help us get in shape and ready for the race.
Like many people, we want to exercise more and get in better shape. Everyday temptation often gets in the way, though. To fight these temptations, we turned to one of the most prevalent behavioral tools: the “commitment contract.”
A commitment contract is an agreement your current self makes with your future self—you decide how you’re going to behave before temptations cloud your judgment.
In our lab, we had everyone agree to do some type of training three times a week in the six weeks leading up to the race. In the spirit of what we know about motivation, the focus was on concrete actions (spend a certain amount of time training) rather than vague outcomes (run a fast race).
“Some type of training” is pretty open-ended, so we each defined on our contracts what actually counted as a training session for us—this way we could all train to our own level while maintaining concrete goals. This is important because we all vary in how fit we currently are and how fit we ideally want to be. Research shows personal goals can be more success that striving after a single public standard. The standard becomes too high or too low for many people and leads to demotivation.
Commitment contracts are effective, but we decided to take the commitment up another notch by including social incentives. We each kept track of our training goals on a chart we posted in a very visible high traffic area – right by the kitchen!
The chart helped us track progress from person to person and week to week. The chart made our commitment (or lack of commitment) very visible to each other and ourselves. It’s painful enough to fail privately, but it’s even worse when everyone else can see us coming short of our own standards.
So, how did it work?
For the most part it worked fantastically. However, you can see that a handful of people fell off the bandwagon and never got back on. This is what behavioral economists playfully call that the “what-the-hell” effect.
Importantly though, about one-third of the team succeeded in completing all training sessions, and others were motivated to exercise more or harder than they did before.
It’s important to note that on average, exercise in the lab shot up and as a whole we moved toward our goal. Perfection with any intervention is not expected, but, as a group, we definitely made strides forward.
To better understand what was going on, I talked with some of our lab members to get their assessment.
For some of us, this was an all or nothing endeavor:
“Just knowing that I needed three stickers each week and would be anything less than perfect if I didn’t get all three got me to put on my running shoes without fail.”
Some people used the contracts and the process of defining what “counted” as a training session to eliminate the possibility they would take too much wiggle room:
“For me I always work out but sometimes I don’t feel so good and I ‘call it early’ and stop before getting a full workout. With the pre-commitment this didn’t happen. The fixed time goal kept me from quitting early.”
Other people used the contracts to build in wiggle room, just in case.
“I made my commitment contract loose enough that I could justify yoga or sex as exercise activities, but I never took advantage of the ample wiggle room.”
In the end, the training probably didn’t radically transform anyone from couch potato to athlete or yield dramatic before and after photos (nor did it exactly have randomized and controlled trials), but it seems safe to say that everyone got a little extra boost—even those who didn’t train. As one visitor to the lab remarked “You can’t look at all those smiley faces and not smile back.”
Check out the photos we took from our run here, and for more research on how pre-commitment and social comparison affects goal pursuit check out these academic articles: