The Mary Poppins principle: The behavioural economics of should and sugar

The Mary Poppins principle: The behavioural economics of should and sugar

The character Mary Poppins famously sang “A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down” (and I apologise that you’ll now have that song in your head all day).

And now there’s some behavioural research which suggests that Mary might not only have convinced the kids to swallow their medicine, but been on the money when it comes to getting people to do tough stuff.


Temptation bundling


Freakonomics is one of my favourite podcasts, and one I listen to while cleaning the house as it turns an unpleasant task into something both productive and enjoyable. Little did I know that by pairing activities in this way I was “temptation bundling” – overcoming my resistance to something I should do by adding something I want to do

How did I find out about temptation bundling? Funnily enough it was the very topic discussed in a recent Freakonomics episode where Stephen Dubner interviewed the University of Pennsylvania’s Katherine Milkman about her research on whether pairing an unpleasant ‘should do’ task with a pleasant but guilt-laden ‘want to do’ makes us more likely to do it. Examples might be only allowing yourself to watch TV if you are at the gym, or only allowing yourself a pedicure while catching up on work emails.

In a Poppins world, it’s adding sugar to our medicine to make it go down a little easier. In a behavioural world, getting us to overcome our lack of willpower for the ‘should do’ by utilising our lack of resistance for the ‘want’ to do. 

In the words of the researchers:

Temptation bundling can solve two problems at once by increasing the desire of those with self-control problems to engage in beneficial behaviours requiring willpower and reducing the likelihood that people will engage in indulgent activities they will later regret.”

Why am I mentioning it? Two reasons.


1. Temptation bundling for business


If you are selling something that is in the ‘should’ category (e.g. I should get on to my finances, I should do something about my weight, I should have my teeth checked), there is scope for you to enhance the experience.

I remember hearing about a dentist who installed a $10,000 coffee machine. Pretty soon clients were clambering to get an appointment because what had previously been all about fillings and plaque instead became a story to brag to their friends about. So imagine a breast check clinic that offered a facial while you waited, or a tax accountant that came to you while you were having a pedicure?

If you are selling something in the indulgent category (I’d love to have a facial, I’d love to get a massage, I’d love to have a holiday), but find people are putting it off because they don’t feel deserving, there is scope for you to offer ‘task and temptation’ packages. Have pedi stations that can accommodate a laptop. Pair an afternoon of golf with health check stations at every hole.

Again from the researchers:

“Our research adds to a growing body of evidence that many people are aware of the limitations of their willpower and are actively seeking new avenues for overcoming those limitations.”

Strange as it seems, people may well be willing to pay for you to help them take control of their ‘should’ behaviour.


2. Temptation bundling for your habits


As with all behavioural techniques you can flip the insight for both personal and business application. For personal effectiveness consider what behaviours you can bundle together. Ironing and your favourite TV show? Exercise and an audio book?

The trick is to ONLY allow the desirable behaviour when you are undertaking the ‘should’ task, effectively strengthening the ‘reward’ part of a habit loop where the only way to get that pleasure is when you perform your ‘should’ activity.

 P.S. Here’s the link to the Freakonomics podcast page where you can get the transcript as well as direct access to the research discussed.

Bri Williams runs People Patterns, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.


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