Why New Year’s resolutions fail

Jan 1, JDN 2457755

Last week’s post was on Christmas, so by construction this week’s post will be on New Year’s Day.

It is a tradition in many cultures, especially in the US and Europe, to start every new year with a New Year’s resolution, a promise to ourselves to change our behavior in some positive way.

Yet, over 80% of these resolutions fail. Why is this?

If we are honest, most of us would agree that there is something about our own behavior that could stand to be improved. So why do we so rarely succeed in actually making such improvements?

One possibility, which I’m guessing most neoclassical economists would favor, is to say that we don’t actually want to. We may pretend that we do in order to appease others, but ultimately our rational optimization has already chosen that we won’t actually bear the cost to make the improvement.

I think this is actually quite rare. I’ve seen too many people with resolutions they didn’t share with anyone, for example, to think that it’s all about social pressure. And I’ve seen far too many people try very hard to achieve their resolutions, day after day, and yet still fail.

Sometimes we make resolutions that are not entirely within our control, such as “get a better job” or “find a girlfriend” (last year I made a resolution to publish a work of commercial fiction or a peer-reviewed article—and alas, failed at that task, unless I somehow manage it in the next few days). Such resolutions may actually be unwise to make in the first place, as it can feel like breaking a promise to yourself when you’ve actually done all you possibly could.

So let’s set those aside and talk only about things we should be in control over, like “lose weight” or “save more money”. Even these kinds of resolutions typically fail; why? What is this “weakness of will”? How is it possible to really want something that you are in full control over, and yet still fail to accomplish it?

Well, first of all, I should be clear what I mean by “in full control over”. In some sense you’re not in full control, which is exactly the problem. Your conscious mind is not actually an absolute tyrant over your entire body; you’re more like an elected president who has to deal with a legislature in order to enact policy.

You do have a great deal of power over your own behavior, and you can learn to improve this control (much as real executive power in presidential democracies has expanded over the last century!); but there are fundamental limits to just how well you can actually consciously will your body to do anything, limits imposed by billions of years of evolution that established most of the traits of your body and nervous system millions of generations before there even was such a thing as rational conscious reasoning.

One thing that makes a surprisingly large difference lies in whether your goals are reduced to specific, actionable objectives. “Lose weight” is almost guaranteed to fail. “Lose 30 pounds” is still unlikely to succeed. “Work out for 2 hours per week,” on the other hand, might have a chance. “Save money” is never going to make it, but “move to a smaller apartment and set aside $200 per month” just might.

I think the government metaphor is helpful here; if you President of the United States and you want something done, do you state some vague, broad goal like “Improve the economy”? No, you make a specific, actionable demand that allows you to enforce compliance, like “increase infrastructure spending by 24% over the next 5 years”. Even then it is possible to fail if you can’t push it through the legislature (in the metaphor, the “legislature” is your habits, instincts and other subconscious processes), but you’re much more likely to succeed if you have a detailed plan.

Another technique that helps is to visualize the benefits of succeeding and the costs of failing, and keep these in your mind. This counteracts the tendency for the costs of succeeding and the benefits of giving up to be more salient—losing 30 pounds sounds nice in theory, but that treadmill is so much work right now!

This salience effect has a lot to do with the fact that human beings are terrible at dealing with the future.

Rationally, we are supposed to use exponential discounting; each successive moment is supposed to be worth less to us than the previous by a fixed proportion, say 5% per year. This is actually a mathematical theorem; if you don’t discount this way, your decisions will be systematically irrational.

And yet… we don’t discount that way. Some behavioral economists argue that we use hyperbolic discounting, in which instead of discounting time by a fixed proportion, we use a different formula that drops off too quickly early on and not quickly enough later on.

But I am increasingly convinced that human beings don’t actually use discounting at all. We have a series of rough-and-ready heuristics for making future judgments, which can sort of act like discounting, but require far less computation than actually calculating a proper discount rate. (Recent empirical evidence seems to be tilting this direction.)

In any case, whatever we do is clearly not a proper rational discount rate. And this means that our behavior can be time-inconsistent; a choice that seems rational at one time can not seem rational at a later time. When we’re planning out our year and saying we will hit the treadmill more, it seems like a good idea; but when we actually get to the gym and feel our legs ache as we start running, we begin to regret our decision.

The challenge, really, is determining which “version” of us is correct! A priori, we don’t actually know whether the view of our distant self contemplating the future or the view of our current self making the choice in the moment is the right one. Actually, when I frame it this way, it almost seems like the self that’s closer to the choice should have better information—and yet typically we think the exact opposite, that it is our past self making plans that really knows what’s best for us.

So where does that come from? Why do we think, at least in most cases, that the “me” which makes a plan a year in advance is the smart one, and the “me” that actually decides in the moment is untrustworthy.

Kahneman has a good explanation for this, in his model of System 1 and System 2. System 1 is simple and fast, but often gets the wrong answer. System 2 usually gets the right answer, but it is complex and slow. When we are making plans, we have a lot of time to think, and we can afford to expend the extra effort to engage the full power of System 2. But when we are living in the moment, choosing what to do right now, we don’t have that luxury of time, and we are forced to fall back on System 1. System 1 is easier—but it’s also much more likely to be wrong.

How, then, do we resolve this conflict? Commitment. (Perhaps that’s why it’s called a New Year’s resolution!)

We make promises to ourselves, commitments that we will feel bad about not following through.

If we rationally discounted, this would be a baffling thing to do; we’re just imposing costs on ourselves for no reason. But because we don’t discount rationally, commitments allow us to change the calculation for our future selves.

This brings me to one last strategy to use when making your resolutions: Include punishment.

“I will work out at least 2 hours per week, and if I don’t, I’m not allowed to watch TV all weekend.” Now that is a resolution you are actually likely to keep.

To see why, consider the decision problem for your System 2 self today versus your System 1 self throughout the year.

Your System 2 self has done the cost-benefit analysis and ruled that working out 2 hours per week is worthwhile for its health benefits.

If you left it at that, your System 1 self would each day find an excuse to procrastinate the workouts, because at least from where they’re sitting, working out for 2 hours looks a lot more painful than the marginal loss in health from missing just this one week. And of course this will keep happening, week after week—and then 52 go by and you’ve had few if any workouts.

But by adding the punishment of “no TV”, you have imposed an additional cost on your System 1 self, something that they care about. Suddenly the calculation changes; it’s not just 2 hours of workout weighed against vague long-run health benefits, but 2 hours of workout weighed against no TV all weekend. That punishment is surely too much to bear; so you’d best do the workout after all.

Do it right, and you will rarely if ever have to impose the punishment. But don’t make it too large, or then it will seem unreasonable and you won’t want to enforce it if you ever actually need to. Your System 1 self will then know this, and treat the punishment as nonexistent. (Formally the equilibrium is not subgame perfect; I am gravely concerned that our nuclear deterrence policy suffers from precisely this flaw.) “If I don’t work out, I’ll kill myself” is a recipe for depression, not healthy exercise habits.

But if you set clear, actionable objectives and sufficient but reasonable punishments, there’s at least a good chance you will actually be in the minority of people who actually succeed in keeping their New Year’s resolution.

And if not, there’s always next year.

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