Why New Year’s resolutions work. Illustration: Simon Letch.New Year’s resolutions are ridiculous.
Think about it. People who want to change their behaviours decide to change their behaviours and then all do so at once at midnight. But if they really wanted to change their behaviours they would do it of their own accord, without waiting.
At least that’s what anyone who has ever studied economics has been taught. People are meant to be straightforward, literally single-minded.
But we’re not, and the success of New Year’s resolutions proves it. That’s right, success. Because despite all the jibes, the truth is that New Year’s resolutions work, and work far better than the alternative of simply deciding to change behaviour and then changing it.
The reasons why give us an insight into what it means to be human and into why many of us are never quite sure who we are.
Here’s the evidence, assembled by United States psychologist John Norcross. In the lead-up to New Year’s Eve 1995 he and a team from the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania phoned hundreds of Americans at random and asked whether they were planning to make a specific measurable resolutions at midnight or whether they weren’t but still had measurable goals they would like to achieve.
Half a year later an impressive 46 per cent of those who had made resolutions claimed to be meeting their goals, compared to only 4 per cent of those who had not.
Conceding that self-reported success might be exaggerated, he said his findings should be seen “in a comparative context – compared to what”.
“In this case, the success rate of resolutions is approximately 10 times higher than the success rate of adults desiring to change their behaviour but not making a resolution.”
His finding has been replicated repeatedly: resolutions work. And it suggests that rather than being single-minded, as economists have traditionally believed, many of us are better thought of as having at least two minds, each fighting for control. One might be the saver, the other the spender; one the lifter, the other the leaner; one the dieter, the other the eater.
Economist Richard Thaler had his epiphany when he invited a group of graduate students to his house for dinner. While he was cooking he brought out a bowl of cashews.
“We started devouring them,” he later explained. “I could see that our appetites were in danger. After a while I hid the bowl in the kitchen. Everyone thanked me.”
And then it hit him. He was being thanked by graduate economists. They wouldn’t be thanking him at all if they really believed human beings were rational. “After all,” he recalled in his biography, “if we wanted to stop eating cashews, we could have done that at any time.”
Economics has traditionally explained away what appear to be two separate selves by saying each of us is one self with stable preferences moderated by a discount rate. Because we care most about the present we “discount” whatever good or bad things are likely to happen in the future when comparing them to the good or bad things we are facing now. We are said to have a constant discount rate of about 8 per cent per year.
But the explanation doesn’t stand up. Rather than being constant, our discount rate seems to climb the closer we get to the choice we have to make.
Ask someone today to choose between working seven hours on April 1 or eight hours on April 15 and that person will almost certainly choose the easier day on April 1. But ask again when April 1 arrives and the same person will almost certainly choose the harder day in a fortnight’s time.
The example comes from US economists Ted O’Donoghue and Matthew Rabin who in 1999 published a paper in the American Economic Review eviscerating the traditional idea of a constant discount rate and proposing instead a model of two selves in which the first was concerned only about the present (always wanting to put off anything unpleasant) and the second was concerned about where that would lead.
The two fight it out. There’s no single “self” always in command.
If they are right it explains the success of resolutions – they are a tool the long-term self can use to trap the short-term self into acting.
And it explains why certain types of resolutions are more likely to succeed than others – those that are specific and are made in public with no room for backing out.
John F. Kennedy did it most famously in 1962 with his commitment to send a man to moon “before this decade is out” and just as effectively a year earlier declaring that the US would regard any attack on West Berlin “as an attack upon us all”.
In both he was influenced by Thomas Schelling, an adviser to President Truman who later won the Nobel Prize in Economics and probably invented the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction, which against all odds has kept the world free of nuclear attacks for seven decades.
His insight was that closing off options can be empowering. The US was formidable when it declared that it would send a man to the moon no matter what, frightening when it declared it would defend Berlin no matter what and terrifying when it declared it would respond to nuclear force with nuclear force no matter what.
His advice for tonight is to eschew vague resolutions and go for absolutes: “Just as it may be easier to ban nuclear weapons from the battlefield in toto than through carefully graduated specifications on their use, zero is a more enforceable limit on cigarettes or chewing gum than some flexible quantitative ration.”
And say it out loud. Lock yourself in. Surprise yourself.
Peter Martin is economics editor of The Age.