In 2014, the British government undertook a national experiment with the report card approach-sending letters to thousands of doctors in England who were prescribing the most antibiotics per capita in their regions. The letters, from high-profile British leaders, let those doctors know that they were prescribing more antibiotics than 80 percent of their local peers and suggested alternatives to writing a prescription in the heat of the moment, such as giving patients advice to care for themselves while sick. Researchers from the UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team found that these letters corresponded with a substantial decline in the rate of antibiotic prescription, with an estimated seventy thousand fewer antibiotics given to patients in a six-month period. The letters had cost very little, but they had saved significant sums of money spent on medicine by the national health care system and protected public health.
In hundreds of studies spanning all kinds of contexts from eating better to completing homework assignments to saving money to avoiding the impulse to react to people on the basis of their skin color-Gollwitzer and his colleagues have demonstrated the power of people taking the time to anticipate in advance the obstacles they might face when meeting future aspirations. For example, people who want to eat healthier might jot down all of the possible temptations they’ll face in a week to eat junk food, and then set up a plan to respond to each of those urges.
What’s surprising about Gollwitzer’s research on if/then techniques is that it reveals that the more difficult the long-term goal, the greater the power of the tactic. It works better, in other words, for the challenges that elude people’s sheer willpower.
That’s a problem for future Homer. Man, I don’t envy that guy.