How Being a Copycat Can Nudge You to Achieve a Goal

"Copy-paste prompts" can promote goal achievement.

Posted May 28, 2020

Source: VLADGRIN/Shutterstock

Is sticking with an exercise program that involves working out regularly a goal you'd like to achieve? If so, the latest nudge theory research introduces a new "self-nudging" technique that can help people who struggle to achieve self-improvement goals promote more robust goal achievement by becoming a copycat and mirroring someone else's behavior.

The authors call this "novel, psychologically wise nudge" technique of copying the behavior of a friend or acquaintance to promote goal achievement a "copy-paste prompt." This study (Mehr, Geiser, Milkman, and Duckworth, 2020) was published on May 11 in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.

The authors of this study are Katie Mehr, Amanda Geiser, and Katherine Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, along with senior author Angela Duckworth, who is a psychology professor at UPenn and author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

For this study, which introduces "copy-paste prompts" for the first time, the authors investigate the efficacy of a nudge that encourages people to seek out and mimic a specific goal-achievement strategy used by a friend or acquaintance.

As the authors explain in a May 26 news release, "Copy-paste prompts are easy to implement, virtually costless, and widely applicable with the potential to improve outcomes ranging from healthy eating to academic success." 

This preregistered study (see "The Preregistration Revolution") involved over a thousand participants (N = 1,028) who were each randomly assigned to one of three different groups: a straightforward control group, a quasi-yoked control group, or a group that was given a specific copy-paste prompt.

The copy-paste prompt had the following explanation and instructions: 

"In this study, we want to help you learn about an effective hack or strategy that someone you know uses as motivation to exercise. Over the next two days, we'd like you to pay attention to how people you know get themselves to work out. If you want, you can ask them directly for their motivational tips and strategies."

The researchers found that encouraging people who tend to avoid working out to mimic the self-motivation strategies used by someone they knew who was an exercise enthusiast boosted exercise avoiders' motivation to change habits and exercise more. As the authors explain:

"The benefits of copy-paste prompts are mediated by the usefulness of the adopted exercise strategy, commitment to using it, effort put into finding it, and the frequency of social interaction with people who exercise regularly. These findings suggest that further research on the potential of this virtually costless nudge is warranted."

Beyond the realm of exercise, Mehr, Geiser, Milkman, and Duckworth see other ways that consumers who struggle to achieve life-improvement goals could use copy-paste prompts. "It may be that once a consumer learns to copy-paste in one domain (e.g., exercise), she will be able to apply this technique in a way that improves many other outcomes (e.g., retirement savings)," the authors conclude.

If You Were to Mimic Someone's Exercise Habits, Who Would It Be? 

If a nudge theory researcher handed you the copy-paste prompt used in this study: Can you think of someone in your circle of friends who you'd ask for motivational "tips and tricks" for kickstarting and sticking with an exercise regimen?

If you don't have any friends or acquaintances who exercise regularly, I can relate. When I first started jogging and lifting weights as a teenager, nobody else in my adolescent peer group was into working out or playing sports. I steered clear of all the jocks at my high school; so, it would have been impossible to pick their brains for motivational tips.

That said, below is a meta example of "motivational tips and strategies" that worked for me when I reinvented myself as an "athlete" and went from being someone who hated exercise and avoided working out to becoming an "exercise fanatic" who loved pumping iron and lacing up my sneakers for a daily jog. Maybe you can implement some of the self-nudging tactics below as copy-paste prompts by mimicking these behaviors?

The four motivational triggers that I used religiously and encoded as part of my daily exercise routine when I started working out for the first time in 1983 were: 

  1. Emulating iconic rock stars and movie characters I admired (e.g., Bruce Springsteen, Rocky Balboa) and found inspiring. (See "Role Models Who Break the Mold Fortify Identity Construction")
  2. Wearing the same "uniform" (e.g., a heather gray T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, faded Yankees baseball cap, and Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses) like a method actor would use a costume to get into character.
  3. Spraying myself with sunscreen (e.g., Coppertone), which is an olfactory cue that puts me in an upbeat mood and spritzing on a powerhouse cologne (e.g., Polo by Ralph Lauren or Quorum by Antonio Puig), which made me feel more "manly." (See "Using the Power of Smell to Step Outside Your Comfort Zones")
  4. Cueing up a playlist of motivational songs (e.g., "Born to Run") that included at least one turbo-charged anthem with a Hero's Journey type narrative of an archetypal "underdog" who goes on a romantic Odyssey-like adventure, beats the odds, prevails over adversity, and lives to tell about it.

Let's unpack these details: In June 1983, when I started jogging for the first time, Jennifer Beals, who starred in Flashdance, was probably the movie star that inspired me most. Every day, I'd blast the Irene Cara 12" remix of "Flashdance...What a Feeling," followed by "Maniac" on my Walkman as part of a systematic pre-run routine that got locked into my automatized procedural memory.

The cut-up gray T-shirts made me want to sweat like a dancer or a boxer and were inspired by a gender-fluid hybrid of Jennifer Beals from Flashdance and Sylvester Stallone from Rocky, both of these characters influenced the construction of my athletic alter ego. 

As a teenager who felt like a 98-pound weakling, wearing Ray-Ban aviators was key to my workout persona. As an insecure gay teen, these sunglasses became part of a Chuck Yeager "Fake it till you make it" aspect of my athletic persona. Putting on aviator sunglasses created a shield that blocked out the world and tricked my psyche into believing I had "The Right Stuff."

Before every jog in the summer of 1983, I'd spray myself with tons of sunscreen—more for the olfactory triggers than the actual UVA/UVB protection, I wanted to be tan—and dose myself with nose-blinding amounts of '80s cologne. Although I don't wear "powerhouse" fragrances anymore, the smell of Coppertone never fails to boost my mood and makes me want to break a sweat. Even if it's overcast and raining, I'll put on sunscreen a few minutes before my daily jog as a "Pavlovian cue" to get me psychologically geared up for a vigorous workout.

Lastly, the game-changing song that really helped me identify as someone who liked to work out was "Born to Run" by Bruce Springsteen. I know it's cliché, but this classic rock song from 1975 is a timeless motivator.

Every time I watch this video and hear the lyrics, "Tramps like us, baby we were born to run," I get an itch to lace up my sneakers and head out for a jog, which is what I'm going to do right now. This summer,  I've decided to work out like I'm 17 again. Hopefully, some of these "copy-paste prompts" will inspire you to kickstart a moderate-to-vigorous exercise routine this summer, too.

DISCLAIMER: Please use common sense and consult with your doctor before starting a new exercise program, especially if the workout includes vigorous "huffing and puffing" or high-intensity interval training (HIIT). 


Katie S. Mehr, Amanda E. Geiser, Katherine L. Milkman, and Angela L. Duckworth. "Copy-Paste Prompts: A New Nudge to Promote Goal Achievement." Journal of the Association for Consumer Research (First published online: May 11, 2020) DOI: 10.1086/708880

Samuli Reijula and Ralph Hertwig. "Self-Nudging and the Citizen Choice Architect." Behavioural Public Policy (First published online: March 26, 2020) DOI: 10.1017/bpp.2020.5