Ask Ariely: On Manipulating Motivation and Stopping Scrolling

March 26, 2022 BY Dan Ariely

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.


Dear Dan,

I’ve been struggling to get to the gym and posted about my frustration on social media. I was inundated with support and people sharing anecdotes about what worked to keep them motivated. With so many different strategies offered up, how do I figure out which one works the best?


Social scientists also find it hard sometimes to sort through multiple findings on a topic to identify the key results. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have confronted this problem by conducting mega-studies, using thousands of participants and testing multiple different ideas for achieving a single result.

One of their megastudies addressed your question: The researchers tested 53 different approaches to increasing exercise as measured by the frequency of gym visits among 61,000 people. The approaches ranged from reminders, rewards and pledges to keeping a journal, framing exercise as fun and sharing workouts on social media. About half of these tactics worked to increase gym visits. One of the best-performing approaches was to offer people 9 cents in reward points if they returned to the gym after missing a planned workout. These “micro-rewards” increased gym visits by 16%.

Based on these findings, your best bet would be to combine a few of the successful strategies: Start by setting a reasonable workout schedule. Next, add reminders on your phone. Finally, plan small rewards for yourself for keeping to your schedule and also for going back to the gym if you miss a planned workout.


Dear Dan,

I have tried to spend less time on my phone and on social media, but every time I intend to check just one new message a friend sent me, I end up going down a social media rabbit hole, scrolling through one post after another. Why does this happen to me?


Social media platforms are designed to maximize the time we spend on them. One reason they do this so effectively is that once we start consuming a certain type of content, our appetite for it increases.

In one study researchers asked participants to watch music videos. Half of the participants watched five different music videos, while the other half watched only one. The participants were then asked whether they would like to watch an additional music video or switch to a different task. You might have guessed that those who had already watched five videos would be tired of doing so and ready to move on to something else, but the researchers found the opposite: The participants who had already watched five videos were more likely to choose to watch more than the participants who had watched only one.

This is a case where the old saying is certainly true: If we don’t make a decision, someone else will make it for us. So if you want to take control of the time you spend on social media, you’ll need to take an active role—for example by setting a timer for 15 minutes, or only starting to look at social media 15 minutes before a meeting, so that you know when you’ll have to stop.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.