After all that Christmas food, partying and being generally horizontal over the last couple of weeks, many of us will endeavour to embark on a healthier start to the New Year or make other overly ambitious, life-altering resolutions.

But you’ve probably been making similar promises to yourself for the last five, 10, 15 years though, right?

A fresh start is one thing, but what would actually motivate us to keep those good intentions? We asked a behavioural consultant at Innovia Technology – Kora Muscat.

Why extrinsic incentives won’t work long term

weighed on scales
In 2013 Dubai launched a scheme to pay people to lose weight (Gareth Fuller/PA)

“Some countries have tried to encourage people to lose weight for a reward,” Muscat says. “Mexico attempted to tackle its obesity problem by issuing a free subway ticket for every 10 squats done in front of a sensor at the station and Dubai had a ‘Your Weight in Gold’ scheme, where it offered a gram of gold for each kilo lost.

“In the short term these schemes appear to work but they are soon abandoned as you are tapping into an extrinsic motivation – ‘I’m going to lose weight for a reward’ – rather than intrinsic motivation – ‘I want to lose weight’.”

Muscat argues that if the science behind human behaviour is properly understood then you can use this knowledge to help people become healthier, benefiting them and the wider community.

 overweight woman
Would financial rewards help you? (Lynne Cameron/PA)

“The problem was the Dubai scheme only ran for the summer so there was no incentive to keep the weight off when it had finished,” she says. “It was reintroduced the following summer, so in fact it would have been more financially rewarding to get as large as possible so you’d have more weight to lose next time!

“Even if the scheme had carried on running, the issue with an extrinsic reward is that unless you continuously increase the reward people stop being interested. So for Dubai to continue with its scheme, eventually the gold would have needed to be upgraded to platinum.”

The loss aversion tactic

New Year's resolutions
Sound familiar? (Thinkstock)

“There are a number of well proven behavioural models that can be used to predict how people will behave and applying these would help to improve compliance,” Muscat says.

Loss aversion is a well-known theory in behavioural economics. Essentially it states that losses are more powerful than gains. When applied to New Year’s resolutions it means that every time the resolution is broken, we must be held accountable by making some sort of payment or loss, financial or otherwise (ouch). This loss will drive the positive behaviour change.

The commitment contract

apps to help you keep your resolutions
Would potentially giving your money away to strangers make you work harder at the gym? (Pact/Screenshot)

A number of online communities and apps have been created around this concept of a ‘commitment contract’, for example Stickk. If someone wants to exercise three times a week and doesn’t, they are fined a predetermined amount, eg £3. Apparently this increases the chance of the participant being successful by up to three times as much. There’s also PACT - where you earn cash for reaching your goals from someone who doesn’t!

Variations have included the money lost being either distributed to peers who have been successful (introducing peer pressure) or to causes that the participant disagrees with (intensifying the pain of loss).

These programmes have proven to be successful, even in the longer term. According to the experts at Innovia, using loss aversion theory helps an individual to maintain intrinsic motivation and to keep behaving in a positive manner.

Nudge theory 

Brace yourself for the busy gyms in early Jan (Thinkstock)

There are good examples of how other models have worked in public health. For example, the “common sense model of illness and health” has been used very successfully to encourage people to gain flu shots in order to “keep healthy” rather than to “stop them getting ill”.

The Government’s Behavioural Insights Team has implemented “nudge theory” with positive results to increase the number of people paying their tax on time. Over £1.2 million more was paid on time when a sentence in the letter requesting payment pointed out that the majority of people in the recipient’s area had paid promptly.

The initiative used social comparisons among people who shared similar characteristics – in this case location – to increase payments, a sort of “keeping up with the Joneses”.

So if we look at what’s driving our decision-making processes maybe we can actually stick to resolutions… 

Yoga on the beach
Us in exactly a year, yeah? (Thinkstock)

Perhaps once the irrationality that underpins human behaviour is understood, policies and initiatives can be designed in a way that successfully encourages people to make better choices.

Muscat says: “The ‘weight in gold’ campaign might have been more successful if it had first asked people to deposit a gram of their own gold for each kilo in weight they aimed to lose, focusing on the intrinsic motivation. If the target was exceeded the participant would be rewarded by being healthier and gaining further gold.”

So why not put something away, and get it back when you’ve reached your goal? Or a portion of it when you’ve reached particular marks.

Muscat says we should carry on making New Year resolutions, but just need to make sure there is a consequence to not achieving them.