Tiny Habits Research and References

TIny Habits paperback image

You’ve reached the research and references page for my book Tiny Habits.

​Thank you for making the effort to learn more.

I’m eager to share with you. Here you’ll find material that I couldn’t put in the book, because it made my book too long and -- my editors felt -- too academic. (To be frank, at first I didn’t agree with my editors, but later I saw how much better I can help you and others by putting the background research and references here, in digital form. I can add stuff as needed.)

If you have questions for me about the research behind Tiny Habits and other concepts in my book, please email me at bjfogg@stanford.edu

Because my reference page is online (and not printed in a book) this is a flexible, expanding resource for you and others. So tell me what more you need, and I’ll deliver.

For starters, please know these things:

Tiny Habits is not a summary of old research

Many books you’ll read about behavior, and human psychology more generally, are based on studies performed by other people. The process: Authors will read and read and read, and then they will summarize what already exists. At times these summaries are good and helpful. Other times, the rehashing of old research is not helpful, and perhaps even misleading.

Doing primary research in human psychology is difficult. In fact, it’s harder than doing research in the physical sciences. At least I think so. The methods we have for psychology research are limited. And the findings often do not replicate. I’ve worked with some of the best academics in the world. The conclusion tends to be this: It’s really hard to study humans!

Some of the findings, even in the best peer-reviewed journals, are not reliable guides for telling people how to become happier, healthier, less stressed and more. These articles are not intended to inform everyday people about how to change their behavior for the better. The researchers write them for a specific purpose and a specific audience, which doesn’t include the general public.

In writing for the general public, authors (who are not scientists) often make their claims and then back them with a scientific reference. As a result, the reader often believes the claim. Most readers think, “This is ‘science’ so it must be true, right?”

I’m here to say this assumption about research findings is a big problem. Just because an author’s claim references a published paper doesn’t make the claim valid for your life.

Instead, readers should be skeptical. We should all be more discerning. Because our health, happiness – and our very lives – are at stake.

Too often book authors give advice about human behavior, back it with “science” by referencing an academic paper. Then they move on to their next claim, supporting that with a citation. And on it goes. The vast majority of those writers do not intend to mislead people, but it happens. Just think back on all the advice we got about nutrition over the last few decades.

At other times authors will read a bunch of academic papers describing research in lab settings and then generalize the lab findings to the real world. Again, in this way these authors can mislead you.

In Tiny Habits I take a radically different approach than what you’ve seen in most books about habits and human behavior. I’ll explain my research soon. But first, I want to explain the challenges of doing experiments to understand human psychology.

What you should know about scientific studies on human behavior . . .

The findings from academic studies, especially with regard to human psychology, do not always work in the real world. Especially when it comes to true experiments (which is my specialty), you need to be wary of generalizing the findings.

Here’s why . . .

When you design an experiment in psychology, you want to control all the variables except a few -- called the independent variables -- which you deliberately manipulate. For example, let’s say you are interested in the effects of praise versus criticism on how long someone will use a mobile app. In the experiment, then, some people receive praise from the mobile app, and some people get criticism. Those are your independent variables. And then you need to control for all other variables (ideally). In that way, the experiment can tell you the impact of the independent variables (praise vs criticism) on outcomes of interest (that’s what you measure in the experiment – called dependent variables). In this case the outcome might be how long people use the mobile app.

Experiments are superb at isolating the effects of specific variables. That’s what a true experiment is all about. The resulting data can then tell you, with a quantifiable degree of certainty (that’s what statistics are all about), the effects of the independent variables.

In this example, you may see that praise gets people to use an app longer, as compared to people who received criticism from the app. Thanks to this experiment, you now have some insight about the relative impact of praise vs criticism.

However, it’s tricky to generalize these research findings to the real world. The results from this experiment apply ONLY for the app you are testing (probably not a real mobile app), with the participants in your study (often it’s undergraduate students), in the context in which they are being studied (perhaps in a room located in the basement of the psych department).

If any of those factors change (the app, the participants, or the context), then the results might be exactly the opposite. Or you may not get any results at all.

I’m telling you all this to make this point clear: Scientific lab experiments about human behavior do not give us clear guidance about how things actually work in the real world.

Me, I love true experiments. That’s my academic specialty. However, I have long recognized the limitations of this method – experiments – to guide us in how to change behavior in the real world. And I’m deeply wired to do practical work, to really help people in their everyday lives.

So for Tiny Habits I set aside traditional psychology experiments, and I took a different approach. As you read on, please note how my approach with Tiny Habits research avoids the problems of the traditional approach I described above.

My research on Tiny Habits

With Tiny Habits I ran my studies in the real world with everyday people. In early 2011 I put a real program into the world (the free 5-day Tiny Habits program), and thousands of people enrolled each year.

With the ongoing enrollments in Tiny Habits and the weekly assessments (the dependent measures) I was able to run study after study in the real world, with real people. I analyzed the data each week. Once I had my answer to a question of interest (for example, does a “habit buddy” help people do better?), I would change up the Tiny Habits program and run other studies.

Over the years I designed true experiments to test these dependent variables as people enrolled in the real-world Tiny Habits program:

  • Celebration (emotion) vs no celebration (no focus on emotion)
  • Habit buddies (a type of accountability) vs forming habits alone
  • Email coaching vs SMS coaching
  • Human coaching vs automated coaching
  • 5-day intervention vs 3-week intervention (actually, it was the 5-day program repeated three times)
  • And more.

I started doing this research in 2011 and it continues today – over 8 years later. As you can imagine, I now have a LOT of data about how habits work. (Last time I counted, I had over 500,000 datapoints about habits.)

What you find in my book Tiny Habits comes from this research I performed, week after week, year after year. Please note that all of this took place with everyday people (not undergraduates) who were using a real program in their real lives.

If you want me to share the high-level findings here from all that research, let me know. Once I refined the Tiny Habits program, the results have been very consistent. I’ve shared those findings at academic and industry events, as early as 2012. And I can share more here. Email me and I’ll add it here: bjfogg@stanford.edu

I coached people personally in habits

In addition to the quantitative research and the data analysis, I also personally coached over 40,000 people in Tiny Habits since 2011. Real people with real behavior challenges. This is not typically what a behavior scientist will do. But me, I did it. And this coaching took time out of my life every day since 2011 – even when I was on vacation.

When it comes to research, yes, I have lots of data, and practical insights from the data (because I was doing this with everyday people in the real world). That said, this will probably surprise you: I value my hands-on coaching of real people more than my quantitative data. Why? I learned more from the hands-on coaching. In teaching Tiny Habits to thousands of people, I grappled with pretty much every behavior challenge. The personal coaching I did wasn’t in a sterile lab or a controlled experiment – it was real life. And over the years of coaching people, week after week, clear patterns emerged: I learned what really led to habit change and what didn’t.

Again, doing this hands-on coaching of real people is odd for a behavior scientist. I wasn’t being paid in any way (no fees, no grants), and there were so many times my life partner wanted me to stop spending hours of every week coaching people. In addition to not getting paid, it wasn’t clear what would become of donating thousands of hours of my life.

Here’s the answer: I kept coaching people because I knew for sure – by looking at my data and by hearing success stories of people I coached – that Tiny Habits was a very effective way to help people change. And the human side of me (not the scientist) couldn’t say “no” to helping people. Think about it: If you found a way to help people transform (and they sent you thank you notes and such), you’d keep going, right? Well, that’s what I did.

What I haven’t analyzed in my data

A bit more about my data sets . . .

I have a whole bunch of data for variables I didn’t manipulate (not part of any study I intended) but those data points are part of my data sets. I have no plans to analyze this data myself (for lots of reasons). However, I may make this data available for other researchers to analyze. If someone has the right approval from their institution and is also able to wrangle over 400 data files (a big data integration challenge), that person could then analyze these variables, as they relate to habit formation:

  • Males vs females
  • Effects of age (for example, older people vs younger people)
  • Geographic location (for example, people in U.S. vs people in Japan)
  • Profession (for example, physical workers vs information workers)
  • And more

Again, I have no plans to do this analysis. Individual and cultural differences have never been my focus. Instead, for 25 years I’ve sought to understand all human beings – the main effects. So going back to the example study, I’d be interested in how praise vs criticism affects all humans in general (not for men versus women).

There’s more to share about the research I did over the years to figure out what I call “Behavior Design.” But I’ll stop here.

Again, please send me email with questions. That will guide me in adding more here to help you and others.

Academic references

To be clear, I didn’t read decades of academic papers and then write a book on habits. Instead, as I explained above, I did my own research, learned things and iterated over the course of years. What I learned by doing all that is what you’ll find in my book Tiny Habits.

That said, for some of the topics I share in Tiny Habits, there are academic studies that align with my own findings. I realize that some people will want to read these articles, and for that reason I pulled together related academic work.

I’ve created a document here for that purpose: here

If you find something that I’ve missed, let me know. I’ll add it. I want this to be a super useful resource for students, researchers, and anyone who is curious about how behavior works.

Personal annotations

On that same document (the link above) I also make personal comments – qualifications or elaborations – about some ideas in Tiny Habits. These comments didn’t make the cut when we edited the book to be shorter. So with this online resource, I am able to put them here.

Think of it this way: If you and I were reading Tiny Habits together, out loud, there would be times I’d stop and want to share or explain more. And that’s what I’m able to do in this document. As time allows, I’ll keep adding my annotations.

If there are parts of Tiny Habits where you want more elaboration from me, email me. I’ll add to this document. In this way, I can continue to provide value – and insight – in ways that a printed book cannot.

Thanks for reading this far.

And welcome to Tiny Habits!


BJ Fogg, PhD


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