Pairing Difficult Health Goals With Guilty Pleasures

Pairing Difficult Health Goals With Guilty Pleasures

In this 3-minute, 40-second video, Katherine Milkman, PhD, of The Wharton School explains the "temptation bundling" concept of behavioral modification.

By Hoag Levins

LDI Senior Fellow Katherine Milkman's novel study exploring the use of guilty pleasures to drive health behavioral changes is gaining traction in the popular press as evidenced by extensive articles in Knowledge@Wharton and Inc. magazine.

The original study led by Milkman, PhD, an Assistant Professor of Operations and Information Management at Penn's Wharton School, was published in the November edition of the journal, Management Science. It explains, "Limited willpower has been shown to play an important role in decisions made by individuals that affect weight gain, such as healthy eating and exercise: people intend to exercise and diet tomorrow but frequently lack the necessary willpower to act on those good intentions today. On the other hand, limited willpower makes it difficult for individuals to resist engaging in many highly tempting callout milkman behaviors involving indulgences that induce regret after the fact. We propose that valuable, healthy behaviors could be increased while guilt and wasted time from indulgent behaviors are simultaneously decreased through the use of a previously unstudied intervention: 'temptation bundling.'"

Milkman's concept is a commitment device that creatively pairs an inconvenient self-control goal -- like working out at the gym -- with an indulgent pleasure -- like reading trashy novels. The goal is to advance healthy behavioral changes. For example, a person agrees to discipline herself to ONLY read or listen to delicious page-turners like "The Hunger Game Trilogy" while she is exercising at the gym, thus linking or "bundling" the lure of the pleasant indulgence to the grim task of vigorous exercise.

The ten-week study engaged 226 university students and faculty members and concluded, "that the potential for temptation bundling to improve outcomes for those facing self-control problems is considerable, especially given that they offer a low-cost, simultaneous solution to two common willpower problems (under engagement in shoulds and over engagement in wants) and harness the potential motivational benefits of complementarities between wants and shoulds."

In somewhat more consumer-friendly jargon, Inc. magazine wraps up its story on Milkman's temptation bundling study by noting, "The technique might amount, basically, to self-bribery, but who cares as long as it works to get us to tackle our most dreaded tasks."

Kevin Volpp, MD, PhD, Director of Penn's LDI Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics (CHIBE) and Julia Minson, PhD, Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School were co-authors of the study.