Many of us will try (and likely fail) to change something in our lives in the New Year. Behavioural Economics can explain many of the sounds reasons behind these failed resolutions, but according to Ed Owen, Head of programme content at the IDM, we should all try a little revolution in 2019 instead.
Humans have been making promises to their gods for the New Year since Roman and Babylonian times – these might have been donations, promises or even sacrifices – so the idea of New Year resolutions is far from new.
Granted, many of our modern resolutions are not quite as dramatic. Most of us will likely opt for keeping a diary, starting a fitness regime, taking ballroom dancing classes, finding a new career/job, or some similar resolve to change and improve our lives in some way.
The problem is that the majority of resolutions fail. In fact, the majority of resolutions fail alarmingly quickly, most of them are dead less than a fortnight into the New Year. According to fitness app Strava, most resolutions have been broken by 12 January.
There is a sound psychological reason for this, which is an important part of Behavioural Economics approaches to decision-making, known as cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is when the mind has to consider two contradictory things and has to pivot to one side or another to satisfy that contradiction.
For example, let’s assume you’ve elected to go on a diet. But, every once in a while, you have a sneaky bar of chocolate. What then? Is it an aberration? Are you still dieting? How does your mind reconcile dieting with eating chocolate?
For most people, this is where cognitive dissonance kicks in. Most likely, the mind will decide that the chocolate isn’t ‘typical’ behaviour. You might say to yourself ‘I’m a dieter and that chocolate was a one-off and really doesn’t count’.
Cognitive dissonance is the way you justify yourself to yourself.
But the mind is a flexible thing. This rule still applies even if someone ‘diets’, but eats chocolate pretty much every day and makes little effort to watch what they eat. Cognitive dissonance allows the mind to satisfy this contradiction by creating a loophole. In this case, again your mind tells you that you are a dieter, so that chocolate didn’t count.
What has all this got to do with New Year resolutions you ask?
This loophole, the cognitive dissonance, is crucial. It is the voice in your head that asks ‘what kind of person am I?’ in a given situation.
Let’s assume that for your New Year resolution, you plan to get fit and go jogging every day. You won’t succeed until that voice in your head accepts that you are the kind of person that goes jogging every day.
For a regular jogger, tramping up and down a freezing wet street in the winter half-light is just something you do. It’s no problem. For the rest of us, it’s an insane investment in time and energy at some ungodly hour and for what?
Around 12 January you will probably say to yourself ‘I deserve a day off from this’ and that’s it. Resolution over.
The key is, unfortunately, persistence. Keep going until that voice in your head accepts that you are the kind of person who goes jogging in the freezing wet every morning or evening. Then you’re away.
Dr Richard Wiseman, Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire and occasional magician, studied 3,000 people planning resolutions back in 2007. People had low expectations of triumph, with just over half (52%) saying they expected to be successful. This turned out to be wildly optimistic, as just 12% achieved their resolution goals.
Wiseman says it’s possible to increase your chances of a successful resolution in two ways: First, by planning what you want to achieve, setting realistic goals and waypoints. Second, by telling others your plans, as your social group is likely to encourage you.
Ultimately, this means being practical. If you want to jog your way to fitness, then set aside specific times and dates to jog, then plan your life around them. Wiseman has put together a short questionnaire to help you tweak your plans and increase your chances of success.
There is also an alternative: making drastic changes to your life.
Cognitive dissonance will again kick in and you will become that new person because you will be living that life. Whether it’s moving house, finding a new job or smaller changes like how you commute to work, your behaviour will lead your attitude.
Hence, revolution can be even more effective that resolution in the end. Whether it’s learning new skills – such as taking a deeper dive into Behavioural Economics – or exploring new opportunities in your career. Rather than resolving to improve and hoping to succeed, why not make that change a revolution and change your life in 2019 instead.