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.

Why is it so hard to get a job?

JDN 2457411

The United States is slowly dragging itself out of the Second Depression.

Unemployment fell from almost 10% to about 5%.

Core inflation has been kept between 0% and 2% most of the time.

Overall inflation has been within a reasonable range:

US_inflation

Real GDP has returned to its normal growth trend, though with a permanent loss of output relative to what would have happened without the Great Recession.

US_GDP_growth

Consumption spending is also back on trend, tracking GDP quite precisely.

The Federal Reserve even raised the federal funds interest rate above the zero lower bound, signaling a return to normal monetary policy. (As I argued previously, I’m pretty sure that was their main goal actually.)

Employment remains well below the pre-recession peak, but is now beginning to trend upward once more.

The only thing that hasn’t recovered is labor force participation, which continues to decline. This is how we can have unemployment go back to normal while employment remains depressed; people leave the labor force by retiring, going back to school, or simply giving up looking for work. By the formal definition, someone is only unemployed if they are actively seeking work. No, this is not new, and it is certainly not Obama rigging the numbers. This is how we have measured unemployment for decades.

Actually, it’s kind of the opposite: Since the Clinton administration we’ve also kept track of “broad unemployment”, which includes people who’ve given up looking for work or people who have some work but are trying to find more. But we can’t directly compare it to anything that happened before 1994, because the BLS didn’t keep track of it before then. All we can do is estimate based on what we did measure. Based on such estimation, it is likely that broad unemployment in the Great Depression may have gotten as high as 50%. (I’ve found that one of the best-fitting models is actually one of the simplest; assume that broad unemployment is 1.8 times narrow unemployment. This fits much better than you might think.)

So, yes, we muddle our way through, and the economy eventually heals itself. We could have brought the economy back much sooner if we had better fiscal policy, but at least our monetary policy was good enough that we were spared the worst.

But I think most of us—especially in my generation—recognize that it is still really hard to get a job. Overall GDP is back to normal, and even unemployment looks all right; but why are so many people still out of work?

I have a hypothesis about this: I think a major part of why it is so hard to recover from recessions is that our system of hiring is terrible.

Contrary to popular belief, layoffs do not actually substantially increase during recessions. Quits are substantially reduced, because people are afraid to leave current jobs when they aren’t sure of getting new ones. As a result, rates of job separation actually go down in a recession. Job separation does predict recessions, but not in the way most people think. One of the things that made the Great Recession different from other recessions is that most layoffs were permanent, instead of temporary—but we’re still not sure exactly why.

Here, let me show you some graphs from the BLS.

This graph shows job openings from 2005 to 2015:

job_openings

This graph shows hires from 2005 to 2015:

job_hires

Both of those show the pattern you’d expect, with openings and hires plummeting in the Great Recession.

But check out this graph, of job separations from 2005 to 2015:

job_separations

Same pattern!

Unemployment in the Second Depression wasn’t caused by a lot of people losing jobs. It was caused by a lot of people not getting jobs—either after losing previous ones, or after graduating from school. There weren’t enough openings, and even when there were openings there weren’t enough hires.

Part of the problem is obviously just the business cycle itself. Spending drops because of a financial crisis, then businesses stop hiring people because they don’t project enough sales to justify it; then spending drops even further because people don’t have jobs, and we get caught in a vicious cycle.

But we are now recovering from the cyclical downturn; spending and GDP are back to their normal trend. Yet the jobs never came back. Something is wrong with our hiring system.

So what’s wrong with our hiring system? Probably a lot of things, but here’s one that’s been particularly bothering me for a long time.
As any job search advisor will tell you, networking is essential for career success.

There are so many different places you can hear this advice, it honestly gets tiring.

But stop and think for a moment about what that means. One of the most important determinants of what job you will get is… what people you know?

It’s not what you are best at doing, as it would be if the economy were optimally efficient.
It’s not even what you have credentials for, as we might expect as a second-best solution.

It’s not even how much money you already have, though that certainly is a major factor as well.

It’s what people you know.

Now, I realize, this is not entirely beyond your control. If you actively participate in your community, attend conferences in your field, and so on, you can establish new contacts and expand your network. A major part of the benefit of going to a good college is actually the people you meet there.

But a good portion of your social network is more or less beyond your control, and above all, says almost nothing about your actual qualifications for any particular job.

There are certain jobs, such as marketing, that actually directly relate to your ability to establish rapport and build weak relationships rapidly. These are a tiny minority. (Actually, most of them are the sort of job that I’m not even sure needs to exist.)

For the vast majority of jobs, your social skills are a tiny, almost irrelevant part of the actual skill set needed to do the job well. This is true of jobs from writing science fiction to teaching calculus, from diagnosing cancer to flying airliners, from cleaning up garbage to designing spacecraft. Social skills are rarely harmful, and even often provide some benefit, but if you need a quantum physicist, you should choose the recluse who can write down the Dirac equation by heart over the well-connected community leader who doesn’t know what an integral is.

At the very least, it strains credibility to suggest that social skills are so important for every job in the world that they should be one of the defining factors in who gets hired. And make no mistake: Networking is as beneficial for landing a job at a local bowling alley as it is for becoming Chair of the Federal Reserve. Indeed, for many entry-level positions networking is literally all that matters, while advanced positions at least exclude candidates who don’t have certain necessary credentials, and then make the decision based upon who knows whom.

Yet, if networking is so inefficient, why do we keep using it?

I can think of a couple reasons.

The first reason is that this is how we’ve always done it. Indeed, networking strongly pre-dates capitalism or even money; in ancient tribal societies there were certainly jobs to assign people to: who will gather berries, who will build the huts, who will lead the hunt. But there were no colleges, no certifications, no resumes—there was only your position in the social structure of the tribe. I think most people simply automatically default to a networking-based system without even thinking about it; it’s just the instinctual System 1 heuristic.

One of the few things I really liked about Debt: The First 5000 Years was the discussion of how similar the behavior of modern CEOs is to that of ancient tribal chieftans, for reasons that make absolutely no sense in terms of neoclassical economic efficiency—but perfect sense in light of human evolution. I wish Graeber had spent more time on that, instead of many of these long digressions about international debt policy that he clearly does not understand.

But there is a second reason as well, a better reason, a reason that we can’t simply give up on networking entirely.

The problem is that many important skills are very difficult to measure.

College degrees do a decent job of assessing our raw IQ, our willingness to persevere on difficult tasks, and our knowledge of the basic facts of a discipline (as well as a fantastic job of assessing our ability to pass standardized tests!). But when you think about the skills that really make a good physicist, a good economist, a good anthropologist, a good lawyer, or a good doctor—they really aren’t captured by any of the quantitative metrics that a college degree provides. Your capacity for creative problem-solving, your willingness to treat others with respect and dignity; these things don’t appear in a GPA.

This is especially true in research: The degree tells how good you are at doing the parts of the discipline that have already been done—but what we really want to know is how good you’ll be at doing the parts that haven’t been done yet.

Nor are skills precisely aligned with the content of a resume; the best predictor of doing something well may in fact be whether you have done so in the past—but how can you get experience if you can’t get a job without experience?

These so-called “soft skills” are difficult to measure—but not impossible. Basically the only reliable measurement mechanisms we have require knowing and working with someone for a long span of time. You can’t read it off a resume, you can’t see it in an interview (interviews are actually a horribly biased hiring mechanism, particularly biased against women). In effect, the only way to really know if someone will be good at a job is to work with them at that job for awhile.

There’s a fundamental information problem here I’ve never quite been able to resolve. It pops up in a few other contexts as well: How do you know whether a novel is worth reading without reading the novel? How do you know whether a film is worth watching without watching the film? When the information about the quality of something can only be determined by paying the cost of purchasing it, there is basically no way of assessing the quality of things before we purchase them.

Networking is an attempt to get around this problem. To decide whether to read a novel, ask someone who has read it. To decide whether to watch a film, ask someone who has watched it. To decide whether to hire someone, ask someone who has worked with them.

The problem is that this is such a weak measure that it’s not much better than no measure at all. I often wonder what would happen if businesses were required to hire people based entirely on resumes, with no interviews, no recommendation letters, and any personal contacts treated as conflicts of interest rather than useful networking opportunities—a world where the only thing we use to decide whether to hire someone is their documented qualifications. Could it herald a golden age of new economic efficiency and job fulfillment? Or would it result in widespread incompetence and catastrophic collapse? I honestly cannot say.