The underlying psychology and a practical tip.
A new year, a new start. Will this be the year you succeed in losing weight, reducing your alcohol consumption, or building in more leisure time? It’s easy enough to formulate good resolutions. But sticking to them is unfortunately another matter (Sheeran & Webb, 2016). That cake is just too irresistible, that party too much fun, and that little thing you need to finish at work just too urgent. And all of a sudden your good resolutions just don’t weigh quite so highly after all: whoops, failed yet again. But luckily there’s plenty of research on how you can make sticking to your resolution weigh more highly.
Why is it so hard to stick to good resolutions?
Psychological research teaches us that human behaviour is governed not only by rational thinking and resolve to achieve long-term goals, i.e., the “homo economicus”. Health behaviour particularly is influenced by many other processes we may only be partially aware of (Hofmann, Friese, & Wiers, 2008).
Temptations remain. Even if you resolve to lose weight over the coming year, that cake or glass of wine isn’t suddenly going to lose its appeal. As soon as you’re at a party and see that cake sitting there, your brain immediately starts imagining the sweet taste, how delicious it would be: your mouth starts watering… and you end up eating it after all (Keesman, Aarts, Häfner, & Papies, 2017). Wouldn’t it be great if the rewards for keeping your resolutions were that high?
Preference for the here and now. A great deal of psychological research shows that people value present rewards more than future rewards (Chapman, 1996). A typical example that is often given is that people would rather have €50 now than €100 in a year’s time. This preference for the present can also be an impediment to keeping resolutions: you have to weigh up the immediate enjoyment of eating a cake now against the possible enjoyment of having lost weight in six months’ time. Wouldn’t it be good if keeping resolutions brought rewards not only in the future, but precisely in the here and now?
Loss aversion. Losses weigh more heavily than rewards (Tversky & Kahneman, 1992): the reduction in satisfaction on losing €50 is greater than the increase in satisfaction on gaining €50. Often the unhealthy choice that leads you to abandon your resolution provides reward in the short term, like a delicious cake you can enjoy right now. Wouldn’t it be helpful if an unhealthy choice were immediately experienced as a heavy loss, which outweighed the reward?
Tips to keep yourself in line
In short, there are two processes that can strengthen your resolutions: 1) give yourself short-term rewards for sticking to a resolution, and 2) make yourself experience abandoning your resolution as a loss. Two programmes that reinforce these psychological processes are:
StickK. At www.stickk.com you challenge yourself to something and bet money on you attaining your own goal. If you attain your goal, you get the money back. A short-term reward for yourself. But if you don’t attain the goal, you lose the money. The principle of loss aversion is given even stronger force here because your loss goes to an anti-cause, like a donation to your least favourite political party or football club.
WayBetter. At www.waybetter.com you enter into a similar bet with yourself and put money on it. But you’re also competing with others. If you stick to your resolutions you get some of the money of the people who didn’t manage to stick to theirs. This helps make sticking to your resolutions weigh more heavily, because it becomes extra rewarding.
Research is in progress to devise even better programmes in the future to help people stick to their good resolutions (e.g., the BENEFIT programme, see Keesman et al., 2018). And if you really want to stick to your good resolutions this year, my advice is to ensure that attaining your goals leads to an immediate reward.
Blog written by Mike Keesman for The Inquisitive Mind
Translated by Maria Sherwood