May brings more than flowers

May 2, 2011 BY danariely

May calendarHow the Start of a Month Changes Everything (or seems that way)

A couple days ago, we took advantage of the changing of the months to run a series of studies on people’s confidence in achieving their closely approaching goals.

We asked them questions about how successful they felt they would be in reaching their goals tomorrow and in the next few days and how different things would be. For some, we subtly reminded them of the upcoming May 1st.


We found that the reminder of “May” made people think that they and others would be far more successful. This was controlling for gender, level of current struggling, importance of the goal, and previous contentment with goal progress. And we looked at both specific and general sets of goals.

Why?  Calendar boundaries show how relatively irrelevant boundaries can drastically change how we compartmentalize events (For an example of how statelines can ‘prevent’ earthquakes see here). In this instance, a simple reminder of the upcoming month does not lead people to think that they themselves will change a lot but that the externalities that have recently been in their way will wane.

An Upside to Irrationality?

So how should we view this new finding? Are people being rational, irrational, or strategically irrational? We know from tons of research that people ignore base rates and make egregious forecasting errors about their life.

I think that this is an upside to irrationality. The new month gives us the opportunity to refocus and pre-commit to our goals through new gym memberships or a trip to an organic grocery store (I just signed up for an organic vegetable/fruit/bread delivery service, which I highly recommend). Furthermore, these temporal boundaries fill us with self-efficacy, which have been shown to be positively related to accomplishing goals.

Industries of self-help could take advantage of these boundaries and possibly create more “meaningless” boundaries to help motivate their clients.

Irrational or not, putting the past in the past is a great way to motivate us in the present. May your May be full of success!

~Troy Campbell~