Katherine Milkman on The Fresh Start Effect

Play Video

by Stacie Slotnick

April 10, 2015

Katherine Milkman

Talks in the Advancing Wellbeing Seminar Series are free and open to the public.

The popularity of New Year’s resolutions suggests people are more likely to tackle their goals right after salient temporal landmarks. If true, this tendency has the potential to help people overcome important willpower problems that often limit goal attainment. Across three archival field studies and two lab experiments, we provide evidence of a “fresh start effect.” We show that Google searches for the term “diet”, gym visits, and commitments to pursue goals all increase following temporal landmarks (e.g., the start of a new week, month, year, or semester; a birthday; a holiday). We further show that re-framing the same day as a meaningful temporal landmark increases engagement in goal-directed behaviors.

We propose that temporal landmarks demarcate the passage of time, creating many new mental accounting periods each year, which relegate past imperfections to a previous period, induce people to take a big-picture view of their lives, and thus motivate aspirational behaviors. In a field experiment further exploring the power of fresh starts, we randomized mailings sent to 8,683 university employees encouraging increased retirement savings. These mailings allowed employees to increase savings by completing a simple form. Some recipients were encouraged to increase savings immediately. Others could choose whether to increase savings immediately or at a time delay (e.g., in three months). A third group received mailings identical to those in the second group, except the time delay option corresponded to increasing savings on a future temporal landmark (e.g., on your next birthday). We examine whether an option to enroll “later” increases savings by leveraging individuals’ tendency to prefer putting off virtuous behaviors, as well as whether a later date corresponding to a temporal landmark is particularly motivating.


Katherine Milkman is the James G. Campbell, Jr. Assistant Professor at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and she has a secondary appointment in the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the Perelman School of Medicine. Her research relies heavily on "big data" to document various ways in which individuals systematically deviate from making optimal choices. Her work has paid particular attention to the question of what factors produce self-control failures (e.g., undersaving for retirement, exercising too little, eating too much junk food) and how to reduce the incidence of such failures. Katherine has published over two dozen articles in leading social science journals and is an associate editor for the Behavioral Economics Department at Management Science. She has been recognized as one of the top 40 business school professors under 40 by Poets and Quants, and voted Wharton's "Iron Prof" by the school's MBA students. She received her undergraduate degree from Princeton University (summa cum laude) in operations research and financial engineering and her PhD from Harvard University's joint program in computer science and business.

More in the video series Advancing Wellbeing
Related Content