Why do we fail to keep New Year’s resolutions?

Why do we fail to keep New Year’s resolutions?
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New research has suggested that people may not always want help with sticking to their New Year’s resolutions.

According to YouGov’s recent survey on 2022 New year’s resolutions, only 16% of Britons in the survey said they would be making a New Year’s resolution and the top resolution was to do more exercise or improve fitness, with 49% of the participants stating this. However, individuals often fail to keep their New Year’s resolutions.

Behavioural scientists frequently interpret such behaviour as evidence of conflict between two ‘selves’ of a person – a Planner (in charge of self-control) and a Doer (who responds spontaneously to the temptations of the moment).

A team of researchers from the Universities of East Anglia (UEA), Warwick, Cardiff and Lancaster in the UK and Passau in Germany investigated how far people identify with their Planners and their Doers. They published the findings in the journal Behavioural Public Policy.

Spontaneity versus self-control

The research team found that whilst participants differed in the relative importance they attached to spontaneity and self-control, overall, attitudes in favour of spontaneity were almost as common as attitudes in favour of self-control.

Public policies designed to ‘nudge’ people towards healthy lifestyles are often justified because people think of their Planners as their true selves and disown the actions of their Doers.

The researchers argued this justification overlooks the possibility that people value spontaneity, self-control, and approve of their flexible attitude to New Year’s Resolutions.

Robert Sugden, a professor of economics at UEA, said: “Our key message is not about whether nudges towards healthy lifestyles are good for people’s long-term health or happiness. It is about whether such nudges can be justified because they help individuals to overcome what they acknowledge as self-control problems.

“If that idea is to be used as a guiding principle for public policy, we need to be assured that individuals want to be helped in this way. Our findings suggest that people often may not want this.”

Sticking to New Year’s resolutions

The team led the experiment via an online survey and began by asking each of the 240 participants to recall and write about a particular type of a previous episode in their life. The survey was designed to investigate individuals’ judgements about the personal importance of being disposed to resist desires that conflict with goals. This is often a leading cause of breaking New Year’s resolutions. For some, this was a memorable meal when they had particularly enjoyed the food; for others, it was an effort they had made that was good for their health that they felt satisfied with.

The participants were then asked to state how well they recognised themselves in various statements. These included wishes for more self-control (for example, ‘I wish I took more exercise’), regret about lapses of self-control (‘After ordering desserts in restaurants, I often feel regret’), and approval of self-control as a life strategy (‘In life, it’s important to be able to resist temptation’). Individuals often state similar New Year’s resolutions and often wish for more self-control.

However, an equal number of statements expressed wishes for less self-control (for example, ‘I wish there was less social pressure to take exercise’), regret about exercising self-control (‘After ordering a healthy dish, I often wish I’d chosen something tastier’), and approval of spontaneity (‘Having occasional treats is an important source of happiness for me, even if they are bad for my health’).

Overall, respondents recognised themselves almost as often in statements favouring spontaneity as in statements favouring self-control. In responding to statements about what was important in life, most participants maintained both that it was important to make long-term plans and stick to them and that there was no harm in occasionally taking small enjoyments rather than sticking to those plans. Surprisingly, attitudes were not significantly affected by the type of episode respondents had recalled.

Co-author Andrea Isoni, a professor of behavioural science at Warwick Business School, said: “We conclude that identifying when and where individuals want to be helped to avoid self-control failures is not as straightforward as many behavioural economists seem to think.

“We believe our findings point to the importance of treating desires for spontaneity as equally deserving of attention as desires for self-control, and as suggesting interesting lines of further research. One idea it would be useful to investigate is whether some kinds of deviation from long-term goals are viewed as more spontaneity-affirming than others. For example, we found a contrast between our respondents’ spontaneity-favouring attitudes to sugary drinks and restaurant desserts and their self-control-favouring attitudes to exercise. Breaking a health-oriented resolution by ordering a crème brûlée is perhaps a more positive way of expressing spontaneity than not taking one’s daily run on a wet day.”

To conclude, the findings explain why individuals find it difficult to stick to New Year’s resolutions due to facing conflicts regularly between desires for immediate enjoyment and commitments to long-term goals; they try to resist the temptation to act on those desires but fail in the attempt.


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