How to Enjoy (and Survive) the Holidays Using Behavioral Science

The holidays are a little different than the rest of the year for many reasons. With all of the celebrating, this is a time when we are frequently tempted by sumptuous food and drink, we make many important purchases including gifts, and after all of the over-indulgence, we are reminded to reset and create resolutions for the New Year. So how do we make the most out of these unique situations while also keeping ourselves out of trouble? Look no further than behavioral science for some helpful advice.

Giving Gifts

What do you give someone you love? How do you thank someone for hosting during the holidays? Sometimes when we are stumped, we resort to cash or gift cards, but this type of gift can transform the social norm of gift-giving into more of a market norm that feels like a transaction. Mixing the two can feel awkward. Handing your in-laws $50 in cash for hosting Christmas Eve dinner feels very different than bringing them a very nice bottle of wine and fine chocolates to say “Thank you.”  What do behavioral scientists recommend? Give someone an experience rather than a material item. According to research by Cindy Chan and Cassie Mogilner, even if the giver and recipient can’t consume the gift together, the receiver tends to have more intense emotions while experiencing the gift.

If you do go the route of giving a material gift, we sometimes value things more when we know how much effort was put into it, according to the effort heuristic. This means that if the receiver knows that the gift is artisan, homemade, or otherwise laborious—or even if the gift was difficult for the giver to obtain or decide upon—it may be valued more highly than something that they know was quick and easy to pick up.

Even better, research from Yan Zhang and Nicholas Epley suggests that for material gifts the receiver may like a bad gift better if they first think about how much thought the giver put into it. So as you’re handing your gift to your loved one, make sure you (tactfully) comment on how long you toiled trying to decide on this present—particularly if you’re not sure that they’ll like it, because the effect was stronger for bad gifts than good ones.

One final thing to keep in mind, if you’re going with a material gift: Dan Ariely suggests picking something that will be used every day over something ephemeral. A personalized phone case will be a daily reminder of your relationship; flowers will wilt in a week.

Making Resolutions

We’re all familiar with New Year’s resolutions, and this time of year helps us take advantage of the fresh start effect—when we feel motivated because the start of something new is a good time for change. But we’re all familiar with breaking New Year’s resolutions, too. Creating lofty goals and sticking to them over time can be a struggle, even when we start out with the best intentions. So set your goal, but also set milestones along the way to the end goal so you can tick off progress along the way and feel a sense of achievement to keep you going.  Maybe the first step is “Develop a plan to achieve my goal,” and then you can check it off right away. The immediate reward of checking the box and completing the first step can help motivate you towards achieving the goal. According to goal gradient theory, people tend to expend more energy towards achieving the goal as we get closer to completing it.

It’s also helpful to make your goal specific and action-oriented rather than results-oriented. Something like “Exercise three times a week for at least 30 minutes” rather than “Lose 10 pounds” is often easier to adhere to because it is clear and actionable—but the inputs to losing 10 pounds vary widely, making it a harder goal to stick to.

Lastly, if you make a public commitment to this goal—whether on social media or with a friend—it may create a nice extra pressure to push you forward. Schedule a check-in with a buddy at the end of every month to compare success on one another’s resolutions—and if you’ve fallen off the wagon, reevaluate your plan and use the first of February as your next “fresh start” to pursue your goal again.

Avoiding Overeating

Since food is the focal point of many holiday events, the opportunities for overindulgence are plentiful, especially when we are in exceptional contexts—situations like annual holiday parties or family gatherings. Abigail Sussman, Adam Alter, and Anna Paley’s work demonstrates that when people are presented with foods in these exceptional contexts, they often eat more in that meal—and we don’t make up for mid-day calorie increases later in the day, either. Mental accounting makes these special occasion calories seem different than the other, standard calories we consume, but unfortunately our waistlines don’t agree.

A few nice tactics to combat these special occasion splurges include:

Serve smaller portions: We anchor on the amount of food we’re served and tend to take our cues about when were done from an empty dish rather than feeling full.

Use smaller plates: Relativity can make us feel like we’re serving ourselves more than we are, and we use the indication that the plate is full to stop serving ourselves. Small plates fill up faster than large ones!

Serve healthy items first, or make them first in the dish-passing rotation: The planning fallacy and relativity may apply here in that we are probably overly optimistic about how much we can fit on the plate and will tend to serve larger portions early on, when the plate is empty. Then, as we have less space we take smaller servings, so structuring the unhealthy stuff last could help us limit those serving sizes. Then, when we finish the first plate of food, it acts as a default stopping point when we re-ask ourselves “Do I still really want more?

These healthy tips are summarized from a recent post by our colleagues Michelle Zong and Rachel Kahn at the Center for Advanced Hindsight. You can read the full article here.

To make the most of these tips, you can set a reminder on your phone now to alert yourself at the start of your next holiday event to take the small plate or serve the healthy things first. We hope these ideas help both you, your guests, and your loved ones make (and get) the most out of the holiday season—just not in the form of calories.

Further Reading & Resources

  • Chan, C., & Mogilner, C. (2017). Experiential Gifts Foster Stronger Social Relationships Than Material Gifts. Journal of Consumer Research43(6), 913-931. (Link)
  • Dai, H., Milkman, K. L., & Riis, J. (2014). The fresh start effect: Temporal landmarks motivate aspirational behavior. Management Science60(10), 2563-2582. (Link)
  • Zong, M., & Kahn, R. (2017). A Behavioral Scientist’s Tips For Not Gaining Weight or Over-Eating This Holiday Season. Center for Advanced Hindsight Blog. (Link)