Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Why Is Your Birthday so Motivating?

Landmark dates can provide motivation to change behavior.

It is common to use landmarks as a way of getting yourself motivated to do something new.  Culturally, New Year’s Day is a common date where people make the commitment to do something new (though they have typically given up on their new goal soon after the new year starts).  Similarly, people often use their birthday as a way of getting pumped up to do something new. 

An interesting paper by Johanna Peetz and Anne Wilson in the February, 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explores this issue.  These researchers suggest that landmark dates affect how similarly people view themselves right now to their future selves. 

In one study, the researchers used New Year’s Day to demonstrate this phenomenon.  About six and a half weeks before New Years Day, a group of people were asked to rate how confident, extraverted, motivated, and content they were at that moment.  They were also asked to give these same ratings for their self seven weeks in the future.  One group was given the date seven weeks from that day (January 4).  A second group was reminded that this was right after New Year’s Day.  A third group was told to rate their future selves right before New Year’s Day. 

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Everyone in this study rated their future self more positively than their current self.  However, this difference was much larger for the people who specifically thought about themselves right after New Year’s Day.  The other two groups rated themselves as only slightly more positively. 

There are two key aspects to this result.  First, people want their future self to be more positive than their current self.  Second, this desire to be a better person in the future is more pronounced when there is a major landmark on the calendar.  Other studies in this series showed the same effect with people’s birthdays.

Why does this matter?

When there is a gap between who you are now and who you want to be in the future, that gap can motivate you to take action to make yourself a better person. 

In another study, participants were studied in January.  They were given a calendar showing the next six months.  For one group, a variety of holidays and weekends were marked in a different color on the calendar as landmarks.  For the other group, these landmarks were listed, but they were not highlighted. 

Participants rated their current self and their self six-months into the future on six health-related adjectives (like physically fit, strong, and energetic).  As in the previous study, there was a bigger difference in people’s ratings between the current and future self when the landmarks were prominent than when they were not.

Participants also rated their intention to engage in a variety of health-related activities like eating better and exercising.  Participants were also encouraged to use the calendar to write down specific intentions for health-related activities in the future.  Finally, as participants left the study, they were offered brochures for fitness classes. 

When the landmarks were displayed on the calendar, participants expressed more intention to engage in health activities.  Participants with a calendar that had landmarks were also much more likely to write on their calendar and to take a brochure than those who had no landmarks.

Putting this together, it seems that landmark dates can help people to see the difference between who they are now and who they would like to be.  This difference can be motivating to engage in activities to improve the future self.

Of course, the motivation to change is only a small part of the battle.  We know that people express lots of intentions to do new things around New Year’s Day, birthdays, and other holidays.  But, they rarely follow through with these intentions.

So, it is important to use that motivation to make specific future plans for how you will improve your life.  Without those plans, it is unlikely the boost in motivation will lead to actual change in behavior in the future.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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