Behavioural Training16. January 2013 by Joachim Goldberg
Even without a New Year’s resolution my visits to the sports studio are three times per week these days. ‘Don’t you get bored pounding that wretched Cross-Trainer week-in, week-out,’ I am sometimes asked. Mercifully, there are TV screens on the wall in front of the machines; they provide a welcome distraction, but the training can still be very tedious. What’s more, I cannot resist looking at the clock to see how much longer I have sweat before I can finally get off.
During the Christmas holidays I was away from home, but still kept up my training regimen at a local studio called California Club. Unlike my local studio, it didn’t have cable TV and a selection of channels on eight flat-screens. Instead, there was just one screen and no remote control in sight. This was going to mean more time clock-watching. The Cross-Trainer machine was better though – a superior model with more bells and whistles. While playing with all the buttons, I discovered it was possible to display not only the time since the start of the session, but also the time until the end.
What use is behavioural economics if one doesn’t use to make one’s life better? So I set about making the 45-minute session as hedonically favourable as possible using this new toy. This meant switching the timer between ‘elapsed-time’ and ‘remaining-time’. But when should I do this? At the start of my training the elapsed-time counter, and therefore my reference point, is zero. As I work, I perceive every minute of elapsed training as a gain, which I like. The problem is that this perception suffers from diminishing marginal returns – I perceive the first minute as a greater accomplishment than the next, and so on. If instead I begin training using the remaining-time counter, I start with a huge perceived loss that I gradually reduce. I enjoy the reduction, but the change so imperceptibly small at the outset, it is hardly motivating. In reality I only really enjoy the last couple of minutes before the training comes to an end.
Clearly the solution is to start training using ‘elapsed time’ to take advantage of the perceived gain and then to switch at some stage to ‘remaining time’ in order to enjoy the loss reduction, but not at the halfway mark. Prospect Theory, the Nobel-Prize-winning theory that explained this shrinking sensitivity to increasing losses as well as to increasingly gains, also recognised that an asymmetry exists between the human perception of gains and losses. On average, we perceive losses twice as heavily as gains of an equal amount. In terms of overall training time, this means I ‘enjoy’ seeing the remaining time fall to zero twice as much as seeing the elapsed time rise to 45 minutes. So, to optimise my hedonic experience I must take into consideration both the shrinking sensitivity and the asymmetry (assuming a 2:1 ratio) by switching from elapsed time to remaining time after about 15 minutes. Better still, I switch at 15:01. This way the remaining time will be just below the psychological bar of 30 minutes. It is a small effect but, trust me, every little helps.