“StickKing” with It: Self and Peer Motivation — Mark Morton

Today is January 3, which means that about 30% of all resolutions that were made two days ago have now been abandoned. Whatever motivation we had to strive for self-improvement on New Year’s Day has vanished in a puff of snow. I’m curious as to why this is the case. Every person that I know has, I think, loads of motivation and perseverance for some tasks and goals: my son, for example, will spend hours putting together a complicated Lego set, even missing meals in the process unless we remind him to eat. But that same son seems incapable of getting into the habit of brushing his teeth without being told, even when he knows that it will be good for him in the long run. The same things holds true for most university students: an undergraduate who wills herself to run six miles each evening, even in cold and wet weather, might not be able to rouse herself out of bed to get to her chemistry class.

To address this motivational conundrum, an Economics Professor at Yale University (Dean Karlan) developed a free online program called StickK. The basic idea behind StickK is that you create a “Commitment Contract.” Your contract includes four components:

  1. Your goal. For example, to exercise five days a week for the next year.
  2. Your stakes. This means what you promise to give to some person or some charity if you succeed (or fail). For example, if you’re driven by generosity, then your stakes might be to donate ten dollars to your favorite charity every week that you succeed in exercising five days. But  you can also set things up — and this is where I think it gets interesting — so that if you fail, you have to donate money to a charity that you hate (for example, to the National Rifle Association).
  3. Your referee. This is a friend or family member whom you designate as the person who will monitor and vet your progress, to make sure that you don’t “stretch” the truth regarding your progress.
  4. Your supporters. These are friends or peers who promise to monitor your vetted progress online, and provide support to you in the form of written encouragement.

The online StickK program facilitates all of the preceding. For example, if you’ve designated the NRA as your “anti-charity,” then StickK will transfer ten dollars (or whatever amount you initially designated) to that loathsome organization every time you fail to meet a scheduled goal.

StickK’s method might seem unusual. In particular, the “anti-charity” component — which is the part I most admire, and which, I think, would be most effective for me — almost seems like blackmailing yourself. But it’s hard to argue with StickK’s pedigree: in addition to being invented by the aforementioned Economics Professor at Yale, the program has also been endorsed by other Ivy League academics (such a Barry Nalebuff, professor at the Yale School of Management, and Ian Ayres, professor at the Yale Law School and author of several books about motivation).

If you go to StickK online, you’ll see that on the surface it’s geared toward changes pertaining to physical health. But it would also be easy for an undergraduate to use the program to achieve, say, a goal of “Studying 10 hours a week for my chemistry class,” or for a graduate student to achieve a goal of “Writing five pages of dissertation per week for the next 40 weeks.”

I think StickK is worth a look, especially if your New Year’s resolutions (like mine) already lie in tatters.

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Mark Morton

As Senior Instructional Developer, Mark Morton helps instructors implement new educational technologies such as clickers, wikis, concept mapping tools, question facilitation tools, screencasting, and more. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Mark taught for twelve years in the English Department at the University of Winnipeg. He received his PhD in 1992 from the University of Toronto, and is the author of four books: Cupboard Love; The End; The Lover's Tongue; and Cooking with Shakespeare.

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