A Fresh Start

Incremental
2 min readJan 4, 2024

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How does this psychological phenomenon feature in development interventions?

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Millions of people around the world have made resolutions to change something about their lives. The start of a new year is a powerful ‘fresh start’ moment — moments in which we become more motivated to set and achieve goals. (Dai, Milkman, & Riis, 2014).

Why does it happen?

Psychologists believe certain moments (known as temporal landmarks) provide people with an opportunity to leave past failures behind and start anew — on a clean slate. Such moments are often accompanied by a psychological reset. A ‘switch’ that brings with it:

- a renewed sense of optimism
- a re-surfacing of self-efficacy (the belief in one’s ability to succeed at something)
- an increase the likelihood of goal-setting behaviour, and longer-term behaviour change.

Examples of fresh starts include birthdays, start or end of a holiday season, or even the beginning of a new week.

What does the research say?

The effect of framing future moments in time as “fresh starts” was tested in an experiment offering US university employees the chance to increase their contributions to a savings plan either immediately or at a specified future time like the person’s birthday. The researchers found that the fresh start framing increased retirement plan contributions in the 8 months following the mailing. (Beshears et al, 2021)

However, a similar intervention in Mexico that used the start of a new week to encourage account holders to reset their savings habits and take the first step of making a voluntary contribution via text message had no significant effect on savings behaviour.

In a related experiment, Karlan et al 2016 test how text message reminders impact savings behaviour in Peru, Bolivia, and the Philippines. Although they did not specifically test for ‘fresh start’ effects, they did not find any difference in effectiveness between early or late reminders. Reminder messages in general however were effective in increasing the likelihood of meeting one’s commitment to save when the message itself featured a savings goal.

In South Africa, “fresh start” text messaging is being used to test whether highlighting key moments (known as temporal landmarks) in messaging increases the number of care recipients returning to antiretroviral treatment after a treatment interruption of at least 28 days. Read more here.

Do you know of any other studies on fresh start effects in low or middle-income countries?

Test it out

Here’s how you too you make the best of the 2024 fresh start.

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Incremental

Thoughts about charities, aid, and sustainable development. Finding a comfy seat between research and relevance. Come for the articles, stay for the poetry.