To Keep or Not to Keep These New Year’s Resolutions

New research suggests that people don’t always want help sticking to their New Year’s resolutions.

Individuals often make resolutions in January to maintain healthy lifestyle regimens — such as eating better or exercising more often — and then break them.

Behavioral scientists frequently interpret such behavior as evidence of a conflict between a person’s two “selves” – a planner (in charge of self-control) and an actor (responding spontaneously to the temptations of the moment) .

A team of researchers from the universities of East Anglia (UEA), Warwick, Cardiff and Lancaster in the UK and Passau in Germany studied the extent to which people identify with their planners and actors.

They found that while participants differed in the relative importance they attached to spontaneity and self-control, overall, attitudes in favor of spontaneity were almost as common as attitudes in favor of spontaneity. self control.

Public policies designed to “push” people towards healthy lifestyles are often justified by people thinking their planners are themselves and denying the actions of their doers.

However, in their study published today in the journal Behavioral Public Policy, the authors argue that this rationale overlooks the possibility that people value spontaneity as well as self-control and endorse their own flexible attitudes toward resolutions.

Robert Sugden, professor of economics at UEA, said: “Our key message is not whether boosts to healthy lifestyles are good for people’s long-term health or happiness. The question is whether such nudging can be justified on the grounds that it helps individuals overcome what they themselves recognize as self-control issues.

“If this idea is to be used as a guiding principle for public policy, we need to be sure that individuals want to be helped in this way. Our results suggest that people may often not want this.

Co-author Andrea Isoni, Professor of Behavioral Science at Warwick Business School, said: “We conclude that identifying when and where individuals want help to avoid self-control failures is not as simple as many behavioral economists seem to think so.

“We believe our findings underscore the importance of treating desires for spontaneity as deserving as much attention as desires for self-control, and as suggesting interesting avenues for research.

“One idea that would be useful to investigate is whether certain types of deviation from long-term goals are seen as more spontaneous than others. For example, we found a contrast between attitudes favoring our respondents’ spontaneity toward sugary drinks and restaurant desserts and their attitudes promoting self-control to exercise Breaking a health-focused resolve by ordering a crème brûlée is perhaps a more positive way of expressing spontaneity than not doing your daily jog in wet weather.

The experiment, conducted via an online survey, began by asking each of the 240 participants to recall and write about a particular type of previous episode in their lives. For some it was a memorable meal as they particularly enjoyed the food; for others, it was an effort they had made that was good for their health and from which they felt satisfied.

They were then asked how much they identified with themselves in various statements. These included wishes for more self-control (e.g., “I would like to exercise more”), regrets about lack of self-control (“After ordering desserts at the restaurant, I feel often regrets”) and endorsement of self-control as a life strategy (“In life, it is important to be able to resist temptation”).

An equal number of statements express the wish to have less self-control (for example, “I would have liked there to be less social pressure to exercise”), the regret of exercising self-control (“After ordering a healthy dish, I often wish I had chosen something tastier”) and approving spontaneity (“Having the occasional treat is an important source of happiness for me, even though they are bad for my health”).

Overall, respondents identify themselves almost as often in statements promoting spontaneity as in statements promoting self-control. In response to statements about what was important in life, most participants argued both that it was important to make long-term plans and stick to them and that there were no find it hard to take small pleasures from time to time rather than sticking to these plans. Surprisingly, attitudes were not significantly affected by the type of episode respondents remembered.

The research was supported by funding from the Economic and Social Research Council and the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

“Taking the New Year’s Resolve Test Seriously: Evoking Individual Judgments of Self-Control and Spontaneity” by Kevin Grubiak, Andrea Isoni, Robert Sugden, Mengjie Wang, and Jiwei Zheng is published in Behavioral public policy January 31.

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