It’s nearly the new year — a time for resolving to eat less, exercise more, work harder, give more, get your financial situation in order, make a long-delayed life change. Why do we make such resolutions?
The simplest explanation is that our highest aspirations for ourselves often conflict with our daily desires. Resolutions are designed to give our aspirations the upper hand. In the terms of modern social science, human beings engage in fast, automatic, short-term thinking, and also in slower, more deliberative, long-term thinking. When we make New Year’s resolutions, we're taking advantage of a “temporal landmark” that helps us to strengthen our best intentions.
Valuable evidence in this regard comes from Hengchen Dai, Katherine L. Milkman and Jason Riis of the Wharton School, who investigated what they call “the fresh start effect.” At certain salient times — a new year, a new month, a birthday, a holiday — people really do refocus their thinking and even reorient their conduct.
A lot of people want to lose weight. But when, exactly, do they think about dieting? Using Google searches, Dai and his colleagues found that people look up the word “diet” a lot more at the beginning of the week, month and year. Such temporal landmarks — mere accidents of the calendar — turn out to have a much bigger effect on people’s searches than important news events do, such as reports of the successful trial of a diet pill.
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Google searches are one thing; actual behavior is another. But the researchers find that when people use temporal landmarks, they are far more likely than usual to engage in activities that fit with their aspirations. One study of almost 12,000 students at a large university found that the start of each week, month and year brings a large increase in gym attendance. And in the month following the average undergraduate's birthday, he or she is much more likely to go to the gym — an effect as great as that produced by keeping the gym open for two more hours.
The website stickK.com enables people to enter into “commitment contracts,” by which they specify certain goals and agree to pay some amount (sometimes to a cause they dislike) if they do not fulfill those goals. The Wharton researchers followed the behavior of more than 44,000 stickK.com users and found that people are more likely than usual to elect to commit to specific goals at the beginning of a new week (by 62.9 percent) or month (by 23.6 percent) — and even more at the start of a new year (by 145.3 percent).
Why do temporal landmarks matter so much? First, they provide a clear opportunity to step back from daily life and reflect — to ponder whether your actions, and your life, mirror your highest goals for yourself. When you hit a birthday or a new year, you ask about the big picture.
But there is a second factor. Dai and his coauthors contend that temporal landmarks open up new “mental accounts” that enable us to separate the past from the future. We make a sharp distinction between our past self (who ate too much and failed to exercise, or stuck with unrewarding work or a bad relationship) and our current self (who has turned over a new leaf). People’s behavior often stems from their sense of their own identity, and big changes happen more easily when they can convince themselves that their 2015 self is on a whole new path.
But how can we ensure that our resolutions actually stick? Behavioral economists have three answers: Make them easy and automatic, make them a matter of habit, and make them fun. A resolution is more likely to work if it is concrete and can be translated into a simple routine.
It's an inescapable fact of life that when our aspirations conflict with our desires, our desires often win out. But sometimes we can ensure that embarking on a long-delayed task, or changing our life course, is a pleasure, even a delight. If we can engage in that bit of alchemy — transforming our aspirations into our desires — we will be far more likely to look back on our resolutions not as a failure, but as a turning point.