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Jeff Ely over at the excellent Cheap Talk writes about his attempt to fool himself into being punctual:

I once tried setting my watch ahead a few minutes to help me make it to appointments on time.  At first it worked, but not because I was fooled.  I would glance at the watch, get worried that I was late, then remember that the watch is fast.  But that brief flash acted as a sort of preview of how it feels to be late.  And the feeling is a better motivator than the thought in the abstract.

But that didn’t last very long.  The surprise wore off.  I wonder if there are ways to maintain the surprise.  For example, instead of setting the watch a fixed time ahead, I could set it to run too fast so that it gained an extra minute every week or month.  Then if I have adaptive expectations I could consistently fool myself.

This reminded me of an older post of mine that discussed the potential for a “novelty curve” with various nudge strategies. It was in relation to the Volkswagen-sponsored Fun Theory project.  Here is what I wrote:

One question that I have is to what extent are these tactics sticky. There seems to be a “novelty curve” whereby people are initially intrigued and engaged by something new and fun. However, as time goes by what was once new and intriguing becomes old and stale. Will the musical staircase above be able to maintain the same distribution of stair-to-escalator use over time? Or will people revert to convenience over fun? More than likely the distribution will settle into a new equilibrium that is different than before the staircase was altered, but tactics like these will likely need to include a ‘refreshing’ element, whereby the nudging mechanism is altered or alternated in order to prevent the suboptimal behavior from gaining ground or becoming dominant again.

Bottom line: people adapt. It strikes me that nudge-like strategies could fall prey to behavioral adaptation (either conscious or unconscious). Like any strategy, once it’s deployed, parties will attempt to adapt to it. In cases where we are trying to ‘fool ourselves’ into a different behavior, its likely that we will have to deal with the inevitable unconscious adaptation to strategies we ourselves implement. And this should hold for strategies that use a different incentive other than fun. Even financial- or shame-based nudges likely will not retain their motivational power forever. It is unlikely that the general tendency for people to try and avoid losing that which they already posses (even if it is small in relative terms) is immune to the brains ability to adapt over time.

Does anyone know of longitudinal studies of nudge-strategies and the half-life of their effectiveness?

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