Want to Change Something? Start by Measuring It

August 4, 2015

Categories: Change

Psychologist Everett Worthington once did a research study comparing two types of therapies for improving people’s marriages. He brought couples into the lab, measured them on a bunch of different things, gave couples a summary of how they were doing, and then randomly assigned couples to receive one of two types of therapy or no therapy (i.e., control group).

One of the most interesting findings from the study was 25% of the improvement came simply from going through all the tests at the beginning and receiving feedback on how the marriage was doing.

Let that sink in for a minute. ¼ of the improvement happened before any therapy occurred at all. The only thing that happened was couples completed a bunch of tests and received feedback on how they were doing.

I think this is an important lesson if you are trying to change something in your life: If you want to change something, start by measuring it.

Often our goals are very general. For example, we might have a goal to get healthier. But if the goal stays at this general level, we are unlikely to succeed. We have to get more specific. For example, one of the most effective interventions for losing weight is to keep a food log and write down everything you put into your mouth. There’s something about having to write down ‘jumbo bag of M&Ms’ that makes it less likely for us to stuff our face with candy.

There’s a principle from psychology called the Hawthorne Effect that supports this idea. There was a study done in the 1930s at the Hawthorne Works (a Western Electric factory outside Chicago). The original researchers wanted to see if workers would become more productive in higher or lower levels of light. Not surprisingly, workers increased productivity at higher levels of light, and productivity went down when that part of the study ended. However, researchers also found that workers increased productivity at lower levels of light, and productivity again went down when that part of the study ended.

The conclusion: There was something about the fact that workers were being assessed and measured that increased their productivity, irrespective of the lighting conditions.

Use the Hawthorne Effect to your advantage! Want to change something in your life? Start by figuring out a way to measure it and measure it everyday. Want to supercharge the Hawthorne Effect? Measure the thing you want to change and share it with a group of people (e.g., post your food logs online to a group of friends). You might find that by measuring the thing you want to change, you will jump start your change process.

Discussion: What is one thing you want to change in your life? How could you start measuring the thing you want to change?

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  1. […] what you are trying to measure. In the same way, if you want to change something in your life, start by measuring it. A study on marriage counseling found that about 25% of improvement was due to a thorough […]

  2. […] You don’t know what you don’t know. When couples come in for counseling, the first thing I recommend is an assessment. What is the problem? How bad is it? What are the couple’s strengths and weaknesses? It might be […]

  3. […] feedback, feedback. It’s amazing what you can measure nowadays in regard to your physical health. It is essential that you get regular feedback on the […]

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