fresh effects

#3 The fresh start effect: how habits are destabilised at the beginning of new time periods

The “fresh start effect” is the idea, popularised by Katherine Milkman of the Wharton School, that people are most likely to adopt new behaviours after, in her words, “moments of temporal discontinuity”.

By this, she means new time periods – whether that’s the start of a week, month, academic term or after a birthday. She argues that this is because people have a strong desire to be consistent. When we enter a new time period our relationship with our past self is weakened and it becomes a little bit easier to change our behaviour.

Evidence: In 2014, Milkman ran a study alongside Hengchen Dai and Jason Riis. The study examined three behaviours:

  • Dieting (through search volumes for relevant terms)
  • Gym usership (through the usership of a university gym)
  • Commitments to pursue new goals (through data from Stikk, a website where people make public pledges to change their behaviour)

For all three data sets, the psychologists showed that new behaviours were much more likely to occur at the beginning of a new time period.

Recommendation: If you want to change your audience’s behaviour or win a new customer, then upweight communications at the beginning of new time periods. This includes the beginning of the year, month, week, after birthdays and after holidays.

Additionally, research I’ve conducted suggests that our habits are also destabilised when we undergo life events (e.g. moving house, getting married, starting a new job). On average there is a 2.5x increase in brand and category switching after people have undergone a life event. There are plenty of discrete digital opportunities to target these moments too.

Richard Shotton

Guest author: Richard Shotton

Behavioural Science wizz and author of The Choice Factory, a best-selling book on how to apply findings from behavioural science to advertising and founder of Astroten.