Cognitive Daily

i-778592d6607fe953204f521b9451689d-champagne.jpgLast week we asked our readers about New Years’ resolutions. We said we wanted to know whether resolutions made on New Years’ Day were any more effective than commitments made at other times of the year. We are interested in that question, but we didn’t tell you about the question that interested us the most: How many different resolutions should you make?

Our son Jim made so many resolutions this year that he actually organized them into subcategories. This struck us as not a very good idea — if you make lots and lots of resolutions, then you may not be as committed to each one. At the time, we didn’t have any data to back up our hunch. Now we do. We asked readers which of 13 common New Years’ resolutions they had made this year, and we also asked how successful they had been so far in keeping to those resolutions. Only about a week into the year, the average success rating of our 228 respondents was just 59 percent. And indeed, there was a significant negative correlation (r = -.15) between number of resolutions made and success rating.

So it seems that making too many resolutions is indeed a problem: the more resolutions you make, the less likely you are to keep them. The correlation did not hold up for previous years, however. One possible explanation for this is that respondents forgot about some of the resolutions that they didn’t manage to keep.

But there were also lots of other interesting results in our study. As we mentioned last week, newspapers, web sites, and blogs like to give top ten lists of resolutions. Usually, however, these reports don’t offer any data to back up their claims. Did our respondents rank their own resolutions in a similar order? The table below compares our results to two of the top-ranking lists of resolutions from a Google search:

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Exercise topped our list, but it placed #2 on About.com and #4 on USA.gov. Spending time with friends and family, #1 on the About.com list, ranked ninth on ours, and didn’t even make the USA.gov list. Quitting Smoking and cutting back on drinking, which seem to be popular items on nearly everyone’s list, didn’t even make our top ten (it’s possible that our readers are a group who don’t smoke/drink as much as the general population). Getting organized, #3 on our list, was #10 on About.com and didn’t even make the USA.gov list.

Getting back to the original question, though: How do New Years’ resolutions compare to other resolutions or commitments made during the rest of the year? Here’s how the two lists compare:

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As you can see, the two lists are practically identical: no item (other than “other”) is more than two slots away from its spot on the other list, and discounting “other,” the top five spots are exactly the same. So are we better at sticking with the resolutions we make on New Years’ day? Here’s a graph of those results:

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It’s quite clear that we’re no better, and in fact, respondents indicated that they were significantly less effective at keeping to the resolutions they made on New Years’ Day over the course of their lives compared to resolutions made at other times of the year.

Any thoughts as to why this might be so? Let us know in the comments.

Comments

  1. #1 Dave
    January 11, 2008

    I think this makes a ton of sense. On New Years your driving force for making the resolution is the need to make a resolution. At other times in the year you may decide that you need to change something about yourself and do it for the sake of improving yourself. I think you would put more lasting pressure on yourself to succeed at the latter. With the former the pressure falls the further from the beginning of the new year you get.

  2. #2 jim
    January 11, 2008

    I’m fairly sure that resolutions are supposed to work because they’re a public declaration, which serves as a commitment device. At this point, though, I can’t really say that people pay attention to or care about hearing what other people’s resolutions are. Not the people I know, at least. It’s too trite and lacks a sense of irony, I think.

    Also, there may be an inclination to make a faddish resolution instead of one that suits you. A resolution for the sake of a resolution doesn’t really carry a lot of resolve, I’d think.

    I thought also that it might have been notable that the family/friends were the farthest apart on the resolution/non-resolution table, probably because those sorts of commitments come about as the result of conflict/need.

  3. #3 Will
    January 11, 2008

    Too many people make New year’s resolutions because it’s the “thing to do”. Commitments at other times of the year may be due to a greater need for change.

    Personally, I make one big resolution every New Year and dedicate my blog to achieving it. The public declaration makes failure a non option. So far so good.

    The point being that any resolution or commitment to change almost always needs reinforcing mechanisms (or a real plan) beyond some random desire passing through a hung-over brain every Jan 1st.

  4. #4 Jenny
    January 11, 2008

    “it’s possible that our readers are a group who don’t smoke/drink as much as the general population”

    I’m just realistic. I drink a lot, and there’s no way I’m going to even pretend that I’m going to quit anytime soon.

  5. #5 Freiddie
    January 11, 2008

    So, according to this study, resolutions are not that useful after all… Right?

  6. #6 Tony Jeremiah
    January 12, 2008

    This data seems to be consistent with the overjustification effect, whereby extrinsic motivation (i.e., making a New Years’ Day resolution) undermines accomplishing things that have a higher chance of being accomplished via intrinsic motivation (i.e., because you want to do it).

  7. #7 Barn Owl
    January 12, 2008

    New Years’ Day celebrations, resolutions, and the inevitable “first babies of Year n” have always seemed like too much fuss over arbitrary events to me, and in general I don’t pay much attention to arbitrary calendar, age, odometer reading, distance, etc. markers.

    Many of the typical New Years’ resolutions aren’t applicable or relevant, since I don’t smoke or drink, and I exercise regularly anyway (basically to stay relatively sane). Also, making resolutions almost seems to trivialize things such as “volunteer” and “spend more time with family/friends”; I feel that these are things I should do anyway, without the arbitrary goad of a resolution. Most of the resolutions I do make fall in the category of “other”, and they’re all pretty trivial…some might describe them as a bit obsessive-compulsive. ;-)

    Thanks for posting the survey and results; even your “casual Fridays” posts are more science-related than most of the posts on other Science Blogs.

  8. #8 Cogalot
    January 13, 2008

    Given the difficulty and potentially life-changing nature of many of these resolutions, I’m surprised at how *high* the success rates are. If around half the respondents managed to to turn at least some of their (non or not) resolutions into successful, lasting change every year, you’d think there’d be a lot fewer, fat, lazy, poor, uneducated, friendless, disorganized, chain-smoking, workaholics in the world.

  9. #9 Cogalot
    January 13, 2008

    Not to mention drunks. :)

  10. #10 Dave Briggs
    January 15, 2008

    It’s quite clear that we’re no better, and in fact, respondents indicated that they were significantly less effective at keeping to the resolutions they made on New Years’ Day over the course of their lives compared to resolutions made at other times of the year.

    Maybe we should start a movement to spread those resolutions out over the year. Like a quarterly resolution?
    Dave Briggs :~)

  11. #11 stan
    January 15, 2008

    “More New Years’ resolutions = Less success”

    This strikes me as unsurprising. Each additional resolution is another confounding variable. It seems axiomatic that trying to fulfill more resolutions will be more difficult than 1. Note that the success rate with zero resolutions is %100 percent.

  12. #12 Ben
    January 20, 2008

    One needs to consider how detailed and specific the resolution(s) is/are.

    As an example resolving to “lose weight” shows no planning and no measurable metrics of success or failure.

    If the resolution was to record how many days junk food wasn’t eaten, how many days thirty minutes of walking was completed, weigh oneself, once a week (at the same day and time of the week), and accept that there may be some weeks of weight gain, due to changes in muscle mass, over a 366 day year, then the resolution may very well have a greater chance of success.

    Over the past decade I had tried quitting daily drinking of sodas with varied degrees of success. Back in eraly 2005 I finally set up a recording system to track my consecutive days of not drinking sodas. I relapsed in 2005 and tweaked my recording system in 2006, which had a greater degree of success but still led to a relapse in late 2006. I added one final tweak to the recording system in March 2007. I also worked through the reasons and circumstances that I drank soda, and I changed the reasons from why I need to drink soda to why I don’t need to drink soda. I have found this attempt to be extremely successful because I have been very specific as to measuring my success.

    By what I consider to be a very happy co-incidence I came across “Self-directed Behaviour, self modification for Personal Adjustment” by David L. Watson & Roland G. Tharp during my latest attempt of quitting soda drinking.

    I found this a very useful book, because in my eyes New Years’ resolutions are just a form of Behaviour Modification.

    As a final note I don’t set New Years’ resolutions and haven’t for the past two decades. I have always set goals for myself throughout a year. This way I don’t get overwhelmed with too many changes at the same time. I also know from experience that habit change will hit some obstacles and to treat this as a positive learning experience, not a negative self-berating experience.

    Thanks for a rambling opportunity.

  13. #13 estetik
    October 26, 2008

    Many of the typical New Years’ resolutions aren’t applicable or relevant, since I don’t smoke or drink, and I exercise regularly anyway (basically to stay relatively sane). Also, making resolutions almost seems to trivialize things such as “volunteer” and “spend more time with family/friends.

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