Why do we insist on making New Year’s resolutions? On the face of it, there is something intrinsically futile about them, isn’t there?
“When I am faced with a decision on January 2 about whether to eat a large banana split or light up a cigarette, what difference does it make that yesterday, on January 1, I resolved not eat any more deserts and not to smoke again?” asks Dr John Michael, assistant professor and researcher in the fields of psychology and philosophy, from the University of Warwick.
“Having made that resolution, it does not seem in any way to constrain my decision now. But does this same problem arise with respect to commitments, including commitments made to other people? If I have made a commitment to pick up a colleague arriving at the airport but then decide that it would be much more pleasant to stay at home, why does my having made the promise to her make it more likely that I will actually pick her up at the airport?”
Commitment is key
Viewing New Year’s resolutions as a special case of ‘commitment’ opens up a range of ways of making them stick.
“One way to make interpersonal commitments effective is to externalize them,” continues Dr Michael. “We can sign contracts that involve penalties for failing to uphold the commitment – then, the threat of having to pay a penalty can serve as the external check that cements the commitment.”
The website stickk.com enables you to make contracts requiring you to keep your resolution, be it to lose weight or to learn Spanish, and enforces penalties if you do not do so. The success of this service over the past eight years or so suggests that many people find this method helpful.
“One of the tricks that Stickk employs is to allow people to appoint peers as judges to evaluate whether they have been making the required effort to keep their resolutions,” explains Dr Michael. “This not only gives people the comfort that their contract will be monitored and enforced fairly, but also has the additional benefit that it puts their reputation at stake. If they fail to uphold their resolution, then they will be exposed to their peer as an unreliable and weak-willed.
“This ploy can be very effective indeed, and could also work without the help of a contract with a website. If you simply announce to all your colleagues that you are quitting smoking, then it will make it all the more awkward to light up a cigarette on your first day back at work on January 3 - much more awkward than if you had only made your resolution privately. In other words, we can recruit our natural desire to maintain our good reputation as an aid to make our resolutions stick.”
But there may also be many other ways in which other people can help us to make our resolutions stick. Ongoing research at the University of Warwick has revealed evidence that people are more likely to persist in a course of action if they have the sense that others have invested in it and have a stake in its outcome as well.
“We’ve found, for example, people persist significantly longer in playing a boring video game together with a partner, if their partner has had to invest a high degree of effort in order to begin the game in the first place,” says Dr Michael. “And they also tend to persist longer when their contribution to the joint action is highly coordinated with that of their partner.
“This suggests that it may be effective to link your resolutions with those of another person. So, resolve to do something together with another person that you can only succeed at doing if both parties uphold their end of the bargain. For example, you may find someone else who wants to quit smoking and meet regularly to chew gum together when you would otherwise smoke. This way, if you fail, you may also take them down with you. Whether ploys like these will keep you going for 365 days may be unclear, but if they help for a few months, so much the better for your health!”
3 January 2017
Dr John Michael is an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Warwick. His research covers issues pertaining to social cognition - especially mindreading, perspective taking, joint action, and the sense of commitment.
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