Resolutions are Bunk: Psychology Says So

This was originally posted on Provocative Penguin on Jan 9, 2013.

xkcd Resolutions
Pic via XKCD – Click to open in new tab

The beginning of each calendar year inspires (or propels? forces?) many of us to think farther into the future (at least a few months) than we are normally accustomed to (at least a few minutes). This delving into the parts of us that we can’t possibly know about yet, usually involves some form of resolving to better ourselves in a quantifiable manner such as weight loss, vice-reduction, money-saving, career-change, house-organization, or anything else one might desire to change.

We feel all hopeful, optimistic and happy but we are also (sorry to burst your bubble) delusional.

I’m not a groundbreaker here. Many people have previously written about how resolutions are unlikely to be fulfilled. Heck, there’s a whole fitness-industry-jargon group based upon this where people either are, have been, mock, hate, or support the ‘January Joiners’.

This isn’t their fault. It’s not because they’re weak-willed or lazy. These poor suckers who participated in some forced circle share of ‘resolutions’ are putting themselves into the inevitable position of being significantly more likely to fail.

For once, I’m going to spare you the vaguely vainglorious discussion about my own experiences, and I’m not going to just spew out my own (psych-degree-inspired) thoughts. Instead, I’m going to give you some real facts about why participating in the process of ‘sharing resolutions’ is absolute rubbish, based on some other experts’ pedantic writings and some more approachable videos.

Telling people your goals makes you less likely to accomplish them.

When you do divulge your resolutions to better yourself, and someone acknowledges that divulgence, your body and mind already consider you having done most of the work, when you haven’t even started creating the new, ‘improved’ you. You get the self-satisfactory smugness of someone who’s achieved something grand, but you don’t even have to exercise/quit/save/apply, etc.

To further this idea in proofy-psych language, note that Norcross, Ratzin & Payne, (1989) ran a study with 213 New Year’s resolutions-making adults. They provided information on their predicted goal prior to the end of the year, and were subsequently interviewed about their coping strategies and self-reported outcomes over six months. It was found that “readiness to change and self-efficacy, but not social support or behavioral skills, prospectively predicted successful outcome at both one week and one month.” In other words, it was their own capacity and inclination towards change that led to them accomplishing their goals, and it didn’t make a lick of a difference if they had friends and family who knew or cared about their resolutions.

you've changed cinema scope

Photo by author, filtered in the picasa machine

In an earlier study of New Years resolutions by Marlatt & Kaplan (1972), they took a look at what a good portion of us start the year out doing – promising ourselves that we’ll lose weight or at least ‘get healthy.’ Subjects who resolved to lose weight were compared with non-resolving control subjects. Each of these groups were either monitored (every 3 weeks) or not. They found that “no significant differences were obtained in weight change for the factors of resolution or monitoring.” In other words, it didn’t make a difference whether they made the resolution or not in success of weight loss, and it also made no difference whether they were monitored or not! So quit sharing your goals on Facebook about how you’re going to ‘get fit’ and go do active things! You’ll also save some money (maybe another bunked resolution?) because you don’t need the monitoring (weekly weigh-ins) as they make no difference.

Long before these studies were created, Vera Mahler found that getting validation of our goals from others makes them feel more ‘real’ in the mind. You can see that and other truisms about this theory in Derek Sivers’ short TED talk called “Keep Your Goals to Yourself.” Along with Mahler’s point, he also references something called a ‘social reality.’ This is where the mind is tricked into feeling like it has already done something, which sucks the motivation away from the hard work that is necessary to accomplish the goal. Check it out.

Whether you share your resolutions or not, your behaviour has to match your intentions.

In order to accomplish the goal, you must make sure you actually start to do the thing you said you wanted to start doing. Duh, right? This may seem like a no-brainer, but it gets lost on many resolvers.

Kopelman, Rovenpor & Millsap (1992) put this idea to the test when they analyzed determinants for organizational turnover (new job-acquisition). Looking at five different variables: job properties, attitude, intention to leave/stay, job search behaviour (e.g. updating a resume or cover letter), and turnover occurrences, they found that job search behaviour was a greater predictor of turnover than perceptual, affective, attitudinal, and intention measures combined. So, in this case, if a resolver really, really wanted to, and stated their intentions to change jobs, it would have way less effect on them getting a new job than actually doing the new-job-behaviour-things.

Norcross, Ratzin & Payne (1989) also saw this pattern in their study from before, as the successful resolvers used more behavioural strategies (doing the thing) and less self-blame and wishful thinking (thinking about doing or not doing the thing) than unsuccessful resolvers.

I finish writing this piece a week into the new year, and I too have decided to make some changes in my own life… but this has come about due to a dramatic need to take better care of myself, not because I think the calendar renewal invites some sort of magic erasure of all the mistakes I’ve made in the past year. Instead, I like to think of it as a time for inspiration and motivation.

So, to conclude, do whatever you want, because once you start to look around at this resolution subject there are experts on all parts of the spectrum. I think the most important thing is to try to better yourself at all times of the year. One of the best videos on the internet right now is a lecture from the late Alan Watts, where he asks “What would you do with your life if money was no object?” If you take anything away from what you’ve just read and/or watched, I hope it’s this: If your goal or resolution is something you find truly inspiring, it worth not sharing with your friends, family, and especially not your online social networking circle until you’re actually on the path to getting it done.

Evilcreamcomics Resolutions
It’s not that I think I’m above the resolvers, it’s just that I am.
Pic via Evil Icecream – Click to open in new tab
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