Blog/Beyond Texting

Making Behavior Change Stick with SMS Messaging

Can texting help change human behavior for good? Two University of Pennsylvania researchers are leading a massive project to find out.

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In February we wrote about how text messaging can be used as a kind of “nudge” to increase college enrollment.

In March we wrote about how such nudges can help parents take a greater stake in their children’s education.

Now here we are in April, still stuck on the subject of SMS nudges. Sure, maybe we’re biased, but we do love the simplicity and effectiveness of text marketing, and we also love hearing how people are using it in smart ways.

This time, SMS is part of something a lot bigger—finding a way to make behavior change stick around.

Can Texting Help Change Human Behavior for Good?

When it comes to healthy behavior, we humans really need nudges because, well, we humans are just too human for our own good. It’s in our nature to make the same unhealthy decisions over and over again, even though we know better—and even though those decisions increase the likelihood that we’ll kick the bucket a bit too early.

Take it away, Science of Behavior Change:

Unhealthy behaviors—such as smoking, drug and alcohol abuse, overeating, and a sedentary lifestyle—account for approximately 40 percent of the risk associated with preventable premature deaths in the United States.

Changing bad behavior for the short term actually isn’t too difficult. But long-term change? That’s another story, and it doesn’t usually end well for humanity.

Now, however, two UPenn profs think they’ve got a way to edit that story’s ending for the better.

Making Behavior Change Stick

Those two profs are Angela Duckworth and Katherine Milkman, recently featured in a Freakonomics Radio episode called “Could Solving This One Problem Solve All the Others?”

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Angela Duckworth is the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the New York Times bestseller Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. She’s also a founder of the nonprofit Character Lab, which promotes character development in kids via research, educational tools, and thought leadership.

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Katherine Milkman is an associate professor of operations, information, and decisions at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Her research has focused on factors that lead to self-control failures, as well as strategies to avoid these failures. One such strategy is called temptation bundling, a method of linking “wants” with “shoulds” in order to encourage behavior change.

The pair have developed an ambitious project that uses interventions—reminders, incentives, tips, etc.—to help people change their behavior for good. Little nudges, if you would.

Aptly enough, the project is dubbed “Making Behavior Change Stick.”

The MBCS Project

Grayscale photo of hands holding a phone, with a blue text bubble floating above: "Your flu shot has been scheduled!"

There are plenty of unhealthy behaviors to tackle out there, and Making Behavior Change Stick is going to focus on interventions in three areas in particular: education, savings, and health.

Here’s the project goal:

Among the millions of people we will reach through this project, we aim to reduce high school and college dropouts, financial insecurity, and premature deaths by 10 percent.

But the overall project goal is more comprehensive—come up with a solution that will be applicable to unhealthy behaviors of every kind. What Duckworth and Milkman really want to find is a fix for the core problem, our tendency to keep making decisions that are bad for us.

How it’s different

Unlike most of the behavior change studies from the last few decades, MBCS won’t be doing isolated lab research with unrepresentative samples and artificial settings.

Instead, the idea is to collaborate with a variety of large organizations—like 24 Hour Fitness, Bank of America, and Whole Foods—and use their customers as test groups. (That’s how they’ll get those “millions” mentioned above, by the way.)

People who sign up for the MBCS program will receive five weeks’ worth of nudges in the direction of good behavior. Those nudges might include things like points on a rewards card and reminders to go to the gym.

And, of course, the nudge that caught our attention—SMS tips for persistence in achieving your goals.

What it’s going to offer

The point isn’t just to identify the best strategies for permanent behavior change. It’s to distribute them, too.

Duckworth and Milkman are planning to work with designers and product managers—in addition to fellow academics—to create an open-source, consumer-oriented technology that organizations can implement and adapt for their own purposes. Insights from the research will be made public so organizations can get the most out of that technology.

“Policymakers and private companies and everyone else are realizing that you have to engineer around human nature,” Duckworth said. As that realization continues to set in, you can bet companies are going to be interested in the technology MBCS comes up with.

So, will it work? According to Milkman, it already has.

“This baseline model that we’re building has actually been tested repeatedly and replicated to produce lasting behavior change over up to a year follow-up,” she said.


Sometimes a simple nudge is all it takes to change behavior. The tasks now are to find out which nudges work the best in the long term, and to introduce a market version of that baseline model.

Time will tell exactly how MBCS pans out, but it’s an intriguing project that’s worth following—and follow is exactly what Freakonomics plans to do. We’ll keep our eyes peeled, too.

In the meantime, SimpleTexting happens to have a pretty good text messaging platform, if we do say so ourselves. 🙂 Want to try it out for free? Just think of all the nudges you could send and the behaviors you could change! 😉

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