Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Operations & Information Management
Katherine L. Milkman
People often fail to exercise the self-control required to tackle their goals and improve their performance. However, many feel that we have opportunities throughout our lives to start fresh with a clean slate (e.g., around New Year's Day, after a Catholic confession). Although the notion of "fresh starts" has long been endorsed by our culture, researchers have not systematically explored the implications of fresh starts for people's motivation to exert effort in goal-directed activities. Across three chapters, I examine (a) how and why fresh starts affect individuals' ability to exert the self-control needed to achieve their aspirations and (b) when fresh starts may adversely influence individuals' motivation to improve their performance.
In Chapter 1, three archival field studies demonstrate that people engage in aspirational behaviors (e.g., exercising, creating a goal commitment contract) more frequently at the start of new time periods that are initiated by temporal landmarks (e.g., the beginning of a new week/month/year/school semester, or immediately following a holiday, a school break, or a birthday). In Chapter 2, five laboratory studies show that meaningful temporal landmarks--dates imbued with meaning due to their identity-relevance or rarity--are more likely to spur goal pursuit than (a) ordinary days or (b) objectively identical but psychologically less meaningful landmarks. Further, I provide evidence for one mechanism underlying these findings: temporal landmarks (particularly meaningful landmarks) relegate past imperfections to a previous period, making the current self feel more capable of pursuing aspirations. Chapter 3 investigates the impact on individuals' future performance of tracking their performance without incorporating records of their past performance (a phenomenon I refer to as a performance reset). I propose that when individuals believe their past performance was poor, a performance reset will improve their performance by boosting self-efficacy and commitment. However, I expect resets to hurt performance by decreasing commitment without increasing self-efficacy when individuals believe their past performance was strong. One archival field study and four laboratory experiments support this hypothesized relationship between performance resets, past performance, and future performance; these studies also provide preliminary evidence that self-efficacy mediates this relationship. Chapter 4 discusses directions for future research.
Dai, Hengchen, "Putting Your Past Behind You: Why and How Fresh Starts Motivate Goal Pursuit--and When They Backfire" (2015). Publicly Accessible Penn Dissertations. 1035.