Tricking Yourself into Health: Temptation Bundling

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 10.07.53 AMDebbie Hatch | Family & F.I.T.

I love behavioral economics because it studies how and why people actually do what they do. Recently some of my favorite economists have been studying human nature in the health and wellness arena. For me, it’s a phenomenal combination.

Stephen Dubner, an award-winning author and economist himself, defines behavioral economics as, “a marriage between the economist’s view of incentives with the psychologist’s view that most people don’t respond to incentives as rationally as economic theory would predict. It is a field that appreciates simple, clever solutions.”

How do we “make” people exercise, get their physicals or other recommended exams, and/or do the things they know are good for them? Let’s face it, there are a lot of activities we know we “should” do. There are also a lot of ways that we avoid these things.

I mean, we all know that physical activity is something we “should” do. We all know “should” eat well and we know that the prostate exam or mammogram is recommended for a reason. So why don’t we “just do it?”

Katherine Milkman, Assistant Professor at the Wharton School, has a theory. She has done a lot of study on how people make choices and knows that we don’t like limits. One reason we fail is because we don’t like being forced to choose between competing interests.

For example, “Should I exercise after a long day at work, or veg out by watching television and enjoying some mindless relaxation, or get some personal work done toward my goals?“

I can only pick one.


With Temptation Bundling, Ms. Milkman suggests we don’t have to pick only one.

She prefers to “join one thing we may avoid with one thing we love to do but isn’t necessarily productive.”


As Temptation Bundling shows some promise in being applied to help people in their daily lives, Dubner interviewed Ms. Milkman for his Freakonomics podcast entitled, “When Willpower Isn’t Enough” on March 13, 2015. In that interview, Milkman said, “What I’ve realized is that if I only allow myself to watch my favorite TV shows while exercising at the gym, I stop wasting time sitting in front of the television, and I crave trips to the gym where I watch my show. I actually enjoy both my workout and my show more when they’re combined. I don’t feel guilty for just sitting and watching TV, and my time at the gym flies by.”

It’s the old adage of “killing two birds with one stone”.


  • I listen to business podcasts when I’m walking. It’s the only time I have but co-joining the two also ensures I make time for both.
  • I only listen to music in the gym.
  • I tried walking on the treadmill while writing for work, but that didn’t work. I spent a lot of time standing on the treadmill, reading and writing, but I spent very little time typing.

Milkman’s examples include:

  • Only getting a pedicure while catching up on overdue emails.
  • Listening to her favorite music only while catching up on household chores, or
  • Going to a favorite restaurant only while spending time with a difficult relative who she should see more of.

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She’s an economist, so this is not just Milkman’s opinion. She has conducted research into whether temptation bundling actually works. With co-authors Julia Minson and Keven Volpp, their paper “Holding The Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling” define the topic as, “a positive method for simultaneously tackling two types of self-control problems.”


It will be interesting to see the supplemental data of future research. In the meantime, the first study was done with students at the University of Pennsylvania who said they wanted to exercise more. All participants were paid for being in the study that lasted for nine weeks.


The students was broken into three segments.

GROUP I:  Students were provided an iPod preloaded with four audio novels (from a list of 82 that had been rated as “very difficult to put down”) of their choosing. The books were broken down into 30-minute segments and the iPod was held at the gym so students could only listen while they were physically within the facility.


GROUP II:  Students were provided audio novels of their choosing which were then loaded onto their personal devices. They were encouraged to only listen while exercising at the gym but that rule would need to be self-imposed. It was not “required” as in the fist group.


GROUP III:  Students did not receive the audio novel. Rather, they received an equally valued Barnes & Noble gift certificate. They were strongly encouraged to exercise more.






Before you read further, do you have any guesses as to what the study showed?








Seriously – don’t read the answer until you decide whether you think this would work or not. I was tempted not to send the answer in the same e-mail….






Here’s what happened.

For the first 7 weeks, Group I exercised significantly more than Group III.

Group II weighted out right in the middle.


After 7 weeks, all of the students went home for Thanksgiving break.

The gym was closed for a week.

When students returned, Milkman and her colleagues, found no residual difference between the three group’s exercise rates. It was as if, with a week off, students lost their interest in the novels.

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A new study is being conducted and includes the use of Fitbits where physical activity will actually be tracked, not merely whether or a not a person entered the gym.

I think temptation bundling could provide some long-term benefits.

What’s your opinion?

Do you already do some form of temptation bundling?

Can you think of something new you might try?


Next week I will write about our second brain hack: commitment devices. It may be the antithesis to temptation bundling. Rather than join two positive actions, we will talk about a self-imposed “penalty” for not doing the things you “should” do.



In case you are (also) a geek who wants to read the original research, here is a link



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