The "Fresh Start" Effect

In a new article to be published in the journal Management Science, Hengchen Dai, Katherine Milkman, and Jason Riis of the University of Pennsylvania examine whether temporal landmarks (such as the New Year) are associated with increases in aspirational behavior (such as new year's resolutions to diet, exercise, or pursue various goals)--a phenomenon they dub the "fresh start effect."

The researchers conducted three studies: Study 1 used daily Google searches for the term “diet” to examine how public interest in one particularly common aspirational activity changes over time. Study 2 tested whether actual engagement in an aspirational behavior (exercise) increases following temporal landmarks using university gym attendance records. Study 3 investigated the frequency with which people commit to a broad set of goals on the goal-setting website, "stickK."

They found that:

  • Consistent with their hypothesis, searches for the term "diet" are most frequent at the start of each new calendar cycle (beginning of the week, month, year) and following Federal holidays.  Searches decrease as the week (for example) proceeds.
  • Similarly, gym attendance increases at the start of each new week, month, year, and decreases over the course of each month and each year.  The results also show that students exercise more at the start of the semester, on the first day after a school break, and right after their birthdays--with the exception of the 21st birthday, which is associated with a decrease in gym attendance (perhaps, the authors suggest, "because this birthday corresponds to the date when students are first legally permitted to purchase alcoholic beverages or to the fact that it is associated with an increase in autonomy and social status, which may reduce students' urges to change themselves for the better").
  • Examining changes in commitment contracts produced similar findings.

Dai, Milkman and Riis conclude that the fresh start effect is consistent with two psychological processes [...] First, new mental accounting periods as demarcated by temporal landmarks psychologically distance the current self from past imperfections, propelling people to behave in line with their new, positive self-image. Second, temporal landmarks interrupt attention to day to day minutiae, causing people to take a big-picture view of their lives and thus focus more on achieving their goals."

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Frederique Laubepin

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