Study: ‘Buddy system’ is a powerful way to change your habits

You’ve vowed to change your habits — get up a little earlier in the morning to exercise, set aside more time for your passion projects, teach yourself one new skill a month — and yet here you are, still struggling to make a shift.

What’s it going to take?

According to a new study, maybe you need a buddy to keep you on track.

How to get yourself to go to the gym

Researchers from the University of West Chester in Pennsylvania looked at 181 students at the university — all of whom have free access to the gym but who only used it an average of less than once a week — to see if they could use incentives to boost their gym attendance to three days a week, with a minimum half-hour visit each time.

The researchers split research subjects into five groups: a control group; a group they bribed with the offer of cash — in the form of an $80 Amazon voucher — and left to their own devices; a group that was entered into the voucher lottery and paired up with a gym buddy, both of whom had to meet the three-day-a-week goal in order to win; a group that was entered into the lottery, paired up with a buddy, and given information about how all the other groups were performing; and individuals entered into the lottery and given info about how other groups were performing — but who had no buddy to team up with.

The power of pairs

Researchers found that all gym-goers increased their attendance during the course of the three-week experiment — doubling the number of visits to two per week even among the control group.

But the buddy system was a far more successful way to encourage lasting change than individual incentives — nearly tripling attendance among those who worked with the buddy system and more than tripling attendance among those who worked with the buddy system and access to information about how other teams were doing, according to the study data.

Researchers also found that being given information about how their group compared to the overall study population ratcheted up the likelihood of success even further — as those who had been given that information continued to go to the gym for several weeks after the study ended.

Harnessing peer pressure for good

“Being in a team and receiving information on peers are effective in changing a non-user of the gym to a user,” wrote the researchers, led by Dr. Simon Condliffe, an associate professor in the Department of Economics and Finance at West Chester University. “[P]eriodic information feedback has a longer-lasting impact on gym attendance than other interventions. Our findings provide insight for any organization seeking to incentivize behavior change in the most efficient, and cost effective, manner.”