Can Psychology Teach Us How To Stick To New Year's Resolutions?

Jan 1, 2016
Originally published on January 6, 2016 12:25 pm

Research out of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania suggests that people see New Year's Day, their birthdays and even the start of a new month or week as "temporal landmarks" — an imaginary line demarcating the old "inferior" self from a new and improved version. That explains why we often fail at resolutions — our new selves are usually not much better than the old ones. But it also suggests how we might stick to our resolutions — use more temporal landmarks to reach our goals.

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I'm Audie Cornish with this salient question - why do we make New Year's resolutions, especially if we know we're just going to break them? Here with some insight on this subject is NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. And Shankar, you also are going to offer some advice - right? - on how to make these goals more achievable.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: I'm going to try, Audie.

CORNISH: OK. Let's get this out of the way. First of all, why do we bother with New Year's resolutions? What's going on in our heads?

VEDANTAM: It's actually a great question, and I don't think we actually stop to ask that question very often. A few social science researchers recently did. Hengchen Dai, Katherine Milkman and Jason Riis at the Wharton School at the University Pennsylvania- they asked this question. Why do we make resolutions at the start of a new year? And they think New Year's resolutions are really a form of what they call mental accounting. They find that Google searches for the word diet go up dramatically at the start of a new year. But what's interesting is that it's not just at the start of the new year. Birthdays, the start of a new month, the start of a new week, federal holidays - all of these serve as what the researchers call temporal landmarks.

CORNISH: Temporal landmarks - OK, so it's our own way of marking sort of who we are, who we were and the beautiful butterfly we hope to emerge - right? - when we make all these changes.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) Exactly. And now, you know, many religions actually have explicit language describing the very same thing. So Christians, for example, say someone is born again. And this squares very well with the psychological truth about human beings, Audie. Previous research by Anne Wilson and Michael Ross at the University of Waterloo show that people tend to look down on their past selves compared to who they are now. So they say, I used to be a chump, but now I'm a champ. So resolutions really are a way to mark this transition between the old inferior version of ourselves and the new and improved Audie Cornish 2.0.

CORNISH: A-ha. Well, what does this tell us about why the resolutions fail, then, right? We have the energy. We have the gumption. What happens?

VEDANTAM: Well, I mean, if we are biased to imagine that our present selves are superior to our past selves, this actually sets us up for failure, Audie. So if I think to myself that the new and improved Shankar will exercise every day and exercise self-control but I'm really the same person that I used to be, my resolutions are likely to fail.

CORNISH: You're basically saying, this is what makes it hard to fallow through - who we want to be versus who we kind of know we are.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. And when you come to sort of adressing these problems, I think the first thing to say is that awareness of the bias is actually helpful. But we can also take advantage of our tendency to see these temporal landmarks as fresh starts. So for example, one thing you can do is make changes that then work automatically. So if you boost automatic deductions from your paycheck to a retirement account, for example, you can make that change once on January 2, and it's going to last the rest of your - the year without you having to do anything about it.

The second thing you can do is take advantage of smaller temporal landmarks like a new month or a birthday. You can take advantage of that bias to basically say, when you hit February 1 - you can now say the January version of myself is the inferior version. I have a chance how to reinvent myself in February.

CORNISH: All right. So you know a lot about this. Does this mean that you have a seemingly achievable resolution for 2016 that you're willing to share?

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) While I have a resolution, I'm not sure how achievable it is, Audie. And I feel this resolution very keenly right now because like millions of other people, my sports team has done abysmally this past season.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: And my resolution for 2016 is to care less about football than I did in 2015.

CORNISH: Some would say that version of you is the superior version. You should know that.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter). And it's probably not achievable.

CORNISH: That's Shankar Vedantam, NPR's social science correspondent. He's also the host of a new podcast that explores the unseen patterns in human behavior. It's called HIDDEN BRAIN. Shankar, thanks so much.

VEDANTAM: Thanks so much for having me, Audie.

CORNISH: And we can't let go of this subject yet because we wanted to know if you had any stories about resolutions. We put out the call, and you answered.

AMANDA KIRSCHNER: My name is Amanda Kirschner (ph). I live in Washington, D.C., and my resolution was to not take any vacations so that I could pay off my student loans in two years.

KAYLA BEGGS: My name Kayla Beggs (ph), and my goal was to get in shape.

CORNISH: Oh, you guys are so good. We heard promises to eat less, floss more and, of course, this perennial.

KATE BERNSTEIN: I'm going to have one last cigarette. I'm going to go outside and take a break, have one last cigarette. And then I'm going to be done.

CORNISH: Kate Bernstein of Carlsbad, Calif., made that resolution 17 years ago. And for her, that required...

BERNSTEIN: A pound bag of baby carrots probably every two or three days.

CORNISH: She says the crunch of the carrots and the cigarette shape really calmed her nerves.

BERNSTEIN: And sometimes I would honestly just kind of carry a carrot, which looked ridiculous in the subway, I should tell you.

CORNISH: It worked. The carrots worked. All right, enough virtue. Here's one more.

DANIEL BRENT: My name is Daniel Brent. I'm from Madison Heights, Mich. And my resolution was to drink better liquor and smoke better cigars.

CORNISH: That was last year's promise. Daniel Brent is still sticking to it.


NINA SIMONE: (Singing) It's a new dawn. It's a new day. It's a new life for me, and I'm feeling good. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.