Guilty pleasures and obtaining goals

Penn researchers may have found a technique that allows people to indulge in their guilty pleasures while helping them accomplish their otherwise daunting goals.

Led by Wharton’s Katherine Milkman, the James G. Campbell, Jr. Assistant Professor of Operations and Information Management, a recent study introduced the concept of “temptation bundling” as a method for tackling two types of self-control problems: guilt-inducing “want” experiences and valuable yet uncomfortable “should” behaviors.

“Like peanut butter and jelly, ‘temptation bundling’ is about complements—two things better together than they would be separately,” Milkman says. “So when you’re reading ‘The Da Vinci Code’ at the gym, the gym is much more pleasurable, and you enjoy the novel more because it’s a completely guilt-free experience.”

The nine-and-a-half-week study looked at 226 students and faculty members who held Penn Rec memberships—all of whom noted they wanted to exercise more. The participants were broken into three experimental groups: a full treatment group, an intermediate control group, and a control group.

In the full treatment group, the participants were given an iPod and were allowed to upload four “addictive” books from a list curated by the research team—with selections including novels like Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series and Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games.” Members of the full treatment group were told to listen to the audio book of their choice only while working out, and their iPods were locked at the gym.

In the intermediate control group, the participants were allowed to upload four of those same “addictive” books, but to their own personal iPods. This group was encouraged to listen to the devices only at the gym, but their iPods were not monitored.

Members of the control group were each given a $25 gift card for Barnes & Noble, which was valued by the study’s participants as equivalent to the loan of four audio books, and were encouraged to exercise more.

All participants gave the researchers permission to track their gym check-ins. The research team initially saw that the full treatment group with the most restricted access to the audio books attended the gym 51 percent more than the control group and 29 percent more than the intermediate control group.

“The idea is to tie your engagement into activities so that they’re inextricably intertwined—where one of those activities is instantly gratifying but could be wasteful if you do it too much, and the other is really good for you in the long run,” Milkman says. “Essentially, we see that they fit together like puzzle pieces. The instantly gratifying component grabs you in, and the long-term benefits are why you want to bundle in the first place. It’s like incentivizing yourself.”

However, gym participation among all groups dropped during the Thanksgiving break—the eighth week of the study—a factor Milkman says indicates there’s more work to be done.

“This replicates something that’s been shown in previous research—habits formed during school terms tend to be eliminated during breaks,” Milkman says.

One finding that intrigued Milkman was that when given the opportunity to pay for a “restrictive temptation bundle,” 61 percent of the participants committed to pay for gym-only access to iPods containing tempting audiobooks, meaning they would pay to have their own iPods taken away from them and locked at the gym. Milkman says that figure alone suggests that there’s a demand for potential commercial applications.

“Imagine you have a Netflix subscription you can set aside for gym-only access, where you could get on a machine at Pottruck and log in to access the account,” Milkman says.

She also mentions the potential to create iPhone apps that restrict certain activities for specific places using geo-location technology.

“Say there’s a relative you know you should spend more time with, so to do so, you only allow yourself to log on to Facebook or watch a certain TV show at their house. By restricting access with certain geo-locations, you could make sure you’re engaging in these indulgences when you’re doing something you should do more often.”

Temptation Building