How motivational fuel can help us avoid the fate of Aesop’s grasshopper

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By Aline Holzwarth

One of Aesop’s better-known fables features some ants and a grasshopper; the industrious, hardworking ants who labor all summer to store up for the harsh winter, and the lazy, indulgent grasshopper who spends his time playing the fiddle and enjoying the moment. The ants plan for the future while the grasshopper worries only of the present. When winter arrives, the grasshopper realizes his predicament and asks the ants to share their food. But it is too late. The grasshopper is refused, forced to starve by the ants or his own failure to plan. The reader is left to contemplate the true evil here, but all morals aside, the grasshopper is the clear loser in this situation. If only the grasshopper had placed greater importance on the future, he may have been alive to see the next Spring.

The grasshopper is an extreme example of what behavioral scientists call present bias, or the tendency to overweigh the present at the expense of the future. Despite the fact that preparing for the winter was a matter of life and death, the grasshopper gave way to his immediate desire to enjoy the moment. And we all fall prey to this desire. We all think like grasshoppers sometimes.

Despite the fact that preparing for the winter was a matter of life and death, the grasshopper gave way to his immediate desire to enjoy the moment.

To combat this problem of present bias, we can add fuel to increase the likelihood of achieving our goals. There are many ways to add fuel (as I outline in the Friction & Fuel Framework). Take exercise, for example. We can make exercise more appealing in relative terms (going for a light jog is no big deal compared to an alternative of running 15 flights of stairs); we can invoke emotion (dancing can burn a ton of calories, and it’s fun!); we can add incentives (imagine you deposit $500, and it doubles if you get in your steps but disappears if you don’t); we can involve our social networks and important others (team sports!); we can tailor reminders to come at the right place and time (“Good afternoon, Aline! Looks like you have 15 minutes to spare before your next meeting, why don’t you get outside and walk a bit to clear your mind?”).

When we don’t have much “right now” reason to exercise, we don’t do it. The future benefits are just not motivating enough. But changing the timing of the reward so that it comes right now can bring it to the present, right when we need it rather than in the distant future. This technique of pairing an immediate reward with the behaviors that lead to distant long-term rewards is called reward substitution. Think of reward substitution as a way of getting ourselves to do the right thing for the wrong reasons. We do the right thing (exercise), not because it’s good for us in the long term, but because we have some other motivator adding fuel to the behavior.

This technique of pairing an immediate reward with the behaviors that lead to distant long-term rewards is called reward substitution.

There are a lot of ways to add fuel, but there’s nothing that gets me motivated like the ferocity of competition. For me, the threat of losing a challenge to someone I care about beats out all other types of fuel. Like many of the digitally obsessed, I have a smart watch that tells me how much to move, when to stand, and how many more minutes of exercise my body requires for the day. I’m generally pretty alright at hitting my targets. But there are some days that look very different from the rest — days when I go far, far above and beyond the minimum requirement. These tend to be the days where I’m in a competition with a friend or my mom. Suddenly, I’m consistently doubling my move goal, day after day.

You might say that the important goal here is getting or staying fit, and that should be motivating enough as a force. But the reality is that these sorts of goals, far off in the distance and unpleasant to work toward in the present, are simply not motivating. But competition can be the fuel that works — the present reward — to get you to exercise where the future rewards of being fit do not.

Competition can be the fuel that works — the present reward — to get you to exercise where the future rewards of being fit do not.

Since we live in the present, we need to make the best of it. To overcome present bias, and engage in behavior consistent with our long-term future selves, try adding fuel to the behavior. It can be as simple as a dose of competition.

Fuel is, of course, only half of the Friction and Fuel Framework (which I’ve written about here), and if you want to read more on Friction, read about how I tried (and failed) to make a routine doctor’s appointment.

Rather than the grasshopper taunting the ant: “What a silly little ant you are... Forget about work…Enjoy the summer!” the grasshopper could instead make it more fun to store up food for the winter. He could turn it into a game. He could whistle while he worked. Or, in my case, he could challenge the ants to a friendly competition of “who can gather the most grain?”

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References

  1. Aesop’s Fables: The Ants & the Grasshopper

  2. Dan Ariely’s TED talk on self-control and reward substitution

  3. O'Donoghue, T., & Rabin, M. (2015). Present bias: Lessons learned and to be learned. American Economic Review, 105(5), 273-79.


About the author

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Aline Holzwarth

Head of Behavioral Science

Aline Holzwarth is an applied behavioral scientist, primarily focusing on digital health research and scientifically informed product design. She is Head of Behavioral Science at Pattern Health, an evidence-based connected care platform that leverages behavioral science to help patients stick to their care plans. She also co-founded the Behavior Shop, a behavioral science advisory company, and holds an appointment as Principal of the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University, an applied behavioral science lab that helps people be happier, healthier and wealthier, at home and abroad.