What Brands Can Learn About Behavior from New Year's Resolutions

Four Lessons for Marketers on Why People Make Resolutions

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If you are reading this magazine, it's pretty likely your success in 2016 will depend on your ability to change people's behavior.

Behavior change is difficult. And there is no time of year that is a better reminder of this than now. Two out of every three Americans will be struggling to keep a New Year's resolution over the coming days, weeks and -- if they are unusually persistent -- months. Research by psychologist Richard Wiseman suggests that only 12% of people keep their resolutions throughout the year.

There is a lot this massive annual experiment into human behavior can teach us. Beyond revealing people's aspirations and goals (which are actually fairly predictable -- losing weight and exercising more figure high on most lists of popular resolutions), here are four things that we can learn from why people make resolutions, and why and how they fail or succeed in keeping them:

1. The power of social proof. One reason people make New Year's resolutions is simply because other people are making them. As Robert Cialdini, author of "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion" says, "We view a behavior as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it." The lesson for marketers? Make the example of others adopting the behavior change you require visible to the people whose behavior you want to change.

2. The importance of milestones. Research by Kathy Milkman at Wharton and others looked at how "temporal landmarks" (significant dates and times) spur goal-directed, aspirational activities. The beginning of the new year is a near-universal milestone and thus a natural launchpad for planning self-improvement. But it is not the only milestone. Another uncovered by academics Adam Alter and Hal Hershfield is how people's behavior changes when their age ends in "9" (for example, 29, 39 or 49).

Analyzing data sets of marathon runners, they found that people who are approaching a new decade in life are more likely to run their first marathon than people whose ages end in another digit. The insight for marketers? Milestones matter, so look for one to ignite your behavior change strategy.

3 .Future self is a virtuous stranger. A fascinating area of behavioral insights is how timeframes affect people's choices. We've all agreed to an onerous task several months out, only to curse our stupidity for doing so as the day nears. Resolutions suffer similarly. What seemed like a good idea on December 31 can become a royal pain in the ass a couple of months into the year.

When we contemplate our future self, he or she is a model of virtue, easily able to overcome the short-term temptation our present self falls victim to. So our resolutions are often "sized" for our future self, not for our fallible present self. Finding ways to ways to bridge the gap between present self and future self -- whether it is breaking a big, audacious goal into small steps, or showing how actions in the present can help achieve a long-term goal -- can help people keep resolutions. Programs that help potential customers bridge the gap between present and future self can also help marketers with the tricky job of selling products or services with future benefits.

4. Make it easy. This one is almost insultingly obvious. In his book, "Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics," Richard Thaler writes that one of his mantras is, "If you want to encourage someone to do something, make it easy." If your resolution is to eat more healthily, a great start is to put the fruit bowl in an easily accessible place, and the candy as far away as possible. In "The Business of Choice: Marketing to Consumers' Instincts," I suggest marketers should try to make their marketing easier to act upon. How can you make the decision to choose your product both cognitively and physically easier?

With these insights into two of your toughest challenges -- how to keep your New Year's resolutions and how to influence the behavior change you need for your business to succeed -- you are off to a flying start in 2016. That future self, weighing a few pounds less, and with a year-end bonus safely secured, shouldn't seem so distant now…