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New Year’s resolutions don't depend on will power

Those struggling to stick to their New Year’s resolution might take comfort in scientists’ assertion that will power has very little to do with a person’s character.

Professor Nick Chater revealed that the environment is a far bigger factor in determining whether people are able to stick to their diet or exercise regime and that people are suffering from the ‘fundamental attribution error’ in believing that the success of their New Year’s resolution depends on their will power.

Professor Chater, who is Professor of Behavioural Science at Warwick Business School, on BBC Radio 4’s The Human Zoo, revealed:

It can’t be that some people who lead very effective and well organised lives are just endowed with vastly more will power than others.There is no independent evidence for this. Conditions and the environment have more of an effect than we think they do. The ‘fundamental attribution error’ sees people consistently overweight people’s character as the determining factor.

We have to accept that external factors are very important. The environment we live in is nudging us one way or another, to buy or not to, to drink or not to, depending on what signals are present in the environment.”


Professor Chater, experimented on students giving them the choice between a piece of fruit or chocolate. One group were given a long number to remember the other a simple short number. Though the results were mixed there is evidence to back up the hypothesis that more of those with the short number would choose fruit.

There is quite a lot of experimental work on how our will power is affected by the amount by which our memory is taken up by other things. Will power seems to require paying attention. On a large number of people, you really can make them have less will power by distracting them with tricky mental tasks.

If you are exerting a lot of will power in one dimension of your life, like dieting vigorously, then other areas of your life will tend to become slacker, so your will power is a finite source.”

For more information

Listen to Professor Nick Chater and Ed Gardiner,of the Behavioural Design Lab, on BBC Radio 4's The Human Zoo. Or to take part in The Human Zoo's online experiment click here.