The Placeholder Effect: Using Break Days to Help Form Habits

Siyuan Yin, Marketing, The Wharton School

Abstract: Technology innovation can now encourage consumers to do a wide variety of behaviors. This research aims to test a novel intervention to help people form healthy habits, such as exercise more. In particular, we will examine how encouraging people to have “placeholders” on their break days, or days off from pursuing their goals, affects their likelihood of reaching their goals. People will be encouraged to complete a goal-consistent behavior every other day at a specified time (e.g., exercise M-W-F at 3 pm); however, on the days, they do not need to complete the goal-consistent behavior (e.g., T-Th), we will manipulate whether they are encouraged (or not) to engage in another activity during that same time (e.g., reading), what we term a placeholder. By having a placeholder, consumers may be more likely to exercise on M-W-F as the cue to engage in a target activity is activated more frequently than those without a placeholder. By more frequently activating the cue, consumers may be more likely to remember to exercise at a particular time, without getting fatigued from exercising too many days, and thus be more likely to form an automatic habit of exercising.