The Science of Motivation

Social scientists explore what it takes to help people adopt positive behavioral changes for the long-term.
The Science of Motivation

WHAT DOES IT TAKE for people to change their behaviors and make good habits stick? Two social sciences researchers have set out to determine how to help people make better choices—and live better lives.

Katy Milkman, associate professor of operations, information, and decisions at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and Angela Duckworth, professor of psychology in the Penn School of Arts and Sciences, have partnered with 24 Hour Fitness, a U.S. chain of gyms, to study human behaviors related to fitness. Their project is part of the Penn Wharton Behavior Change for Good Initiative (BCFG).

In April, Milkman and Duckworth launched the StepUp Program, an interactive digital platform that uses scientifically proven principles to encourage and incentivize people to go to the gym. As part of the study, tens of thousands of 24-Hour Fitness members, who registered for the free program, receive email and text messages with content intended to “nudge” them to go to the gym. Some receive reminders about laying out their gym clothes the night before, others are encouraged to go to the gym with a friend or receive fitness-related videos. Because different people are motivated in different ways, the research team has designed the study so that each participant experiences one of 57 user paths.

As Milkman and Duckworth follow participants over the next year, they hope to learn how people can overcome obstacles such as forgetfulness, procrastination, and motivation. “In the United States today, 40 percent of premature deaths are caused by behaviors that could be changed. One in three families has no retirement savings at all, and half of college students drop out before earning a degree,” says Milkman, co-director of BCFG. “Solving the problem of enduring behavior change is our single greatest opportunity to improve lives, because countless daily acts ... cumulatively shape our life outcomes.”

Read more about the BCFG initiative.