If you plan, then you’ll do… but it helps to have a friend

04 January 2012

Many people look forward to the New Year for a new start on old habits. While you are more likely to do something if you plan it in advance, research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), shows that partnering up or planning with someone can really boost the likelihood of sticking to your resolutions. This finding suggests that ‘buddy schemes’ could make a big difference to people following dieting plans, health programmes and could be integrated into government well-being initiatives.

"Specific plans regarding when, where and how a person will act have been termed 'implementation intentions'," explains Professor Mark Conner from the Institute of Psychological Science at the University of Leeds. "We already know that these kinds of plans can be really effective. You set up cues that prompt your planned behaviour - 'if I walk to work on Monday, then I will jog home', 'if I feel hungry before lunch then I will eat an apple, not a chocolate bar.' "

But research by Professor Conner and his colleagues Dr Andrew Prestwich and Dr Rebecca Lawton from the University of Leeds has now demonstrated that this effect can be made even stronger if you get other people - friends, family, colleagues involved too.

The Leeds team worked with employees from 15 councils who volunteered to participate in two studies attempting to increase their levels of exercise or improve their diet. Some employees were just left to do it on their own; others were asked to recruit a partner. A third group were encouraged to develop 'if...then...' plans, and a fourth group was told to makes these 'if...then' plans with a partner.

"We followed up after one, three and six months to see how the employees were doing. And it was quite clear that working together and joint planning really helped employees stick to their new exercise regimes. Moreover, the involvement of a partner in planning   had a sustained effect that was still noticeable after six months."

Professor Conner warns that roping in a buddy is not a guarantee for success. The real power is in matching your 'ifs' and 'thens' so you have powerful cues for your new behaviour. When all else is equal, forming exercise plans with a partner will increase your chances of actually sticking to them.

These findings could be applied to various government and NHS initiatives, such as smoking cessation programmes or the current drive to reduce obesity.  Instead of putting all the onus on an individual, people should be encouraged to work with others and form clear 'if... then...' plans. "Individual change can of course happen," notes Conner, "but it is even better to have a friend on your side!"

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Notes for editors:

  1. This release is based on the findings from 'Testing the efficacy and mechanisms of collaborative implementation intentions' funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and carried out by Professor Mark Conner and colleagues at the University of Leeds.
  2. Two studies looked at changes in eating and exercise behaviours and involved employees from 15 councils. Employees were randomly assigned to one of four groups: collaborative implementation intentions (creating 'if... then...' plans with someone else), individual implementation intentions, a partner-based intervention (without 'if... then...' plans), or a control group which was not told about planning. Changes in behaviour were assessed after one, three and six months using standard self-reporting questionnaires (the International Physical Activity Questionnaire and the Food Frequency Questionnaire)
  3. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2011/12 is £203 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at www.esrc.ac.uk
  4. The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peers review. This research has been graded as very good