The psychology behind New Year’s resolutions

By Rebecca Kirkman on January 30, 2019

It’s been about a month since we said goodbye to 2018. How are your New Year’s resolutions holding up?

Group exercise at Burdick
A group exercise class at Burdick Hall. Increased exercise is one of the most commonly made New Year’s resolutions.

While the tradition of setting New Year’s resolutions remains popular (40 to 50 percent of American adults participate), a study by the University of Scranton confirmed what many of us have experienced: As time goes on, we’re less likely to keep the promises we made to ourselves on New Year’s Eve. Researchers found nearly three quarters of people kept their resolutions after a couple of weeks, but less than half remained successful in their resolutions by June.

Why is self-control so difficult, and what can psychology tell us about the success or failure of New Year’s resolutions? We asked Towson University assistant professor Michael Ent about the psychology behind the annual goal-setting ritual, why it’s often so hard to keep promises to ourselves, and science-backed strategies for future success.

TU assistant professor Michael Ent
Michael Ent, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology

What is social psychology, and how do personal resolutions fit into the field?

Social psychologists often study intrapsychic processes that seem to have little to do with social interactions. Self-control (in the form of setting personal standards and exerting effort to match them) is necessary for interpersonal relationships to function.

For example, people often need to exercise self-control to suppress aggressive or selfish impulses for the sake of getting along with others. People’s motivations for self-improvement also often have a social component (e.g., to seem more attractive or virtuous to others).

Why does a new year inspire people to make changes?

I think the beginning of a new year is an intuitively appealing time to make resolutions because it is symbolic of a new beginning. In addition, it constitutes what some self-control researchers refer to as a “bright line”—a clear delineation of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. For example, one may make the clear distinction that smoking is OK leading up to the new year, but when the ball drops, smoking is off limits.

Why does motivation often wane as time passes? What can we do to avoid this setback?

The more time passes after making a resolution, the more [opportunities there are] for life to intervene and for obstacles to arise. Much of self-control success involves getting back on track when we lapse. For example, if people resolve to go to the gym three times a week and have difficulty doing so due to an illness, a family emergency or the like, they may feel like throwing in the towel and abandoning the resolution altogether. This is a self-defeating mindset—allowing for setbacks makes us more successful in the long run.

What’s a common mistake made with resolutions?

Setting too many. People don’t have infinite willpower. The effort spent on sticking to one resolution may inhibit your ability to stick to other resolutions.


Celebrating one year of a Bigger, Better Burdick

Been hitting Burdick Hall as part of your 2019 fitness goals? TU’s remodeled campus recreation center is celebrating its one-year anniversary this month. Read more.

What gets in the way of success?

The tendency to experience intrusive thoughts about unfulfilled goals is known as the Zeigarnik effect. If you had resolved to meditate each day but hadn't actually done so for that day, unpleasant, distracting thoughts might pop into your head about that unfulfilled goal. However, if you had already specified when, where, and how you planned to fulfill that goal, you are unlikely to suffer from such intrusive thoughts.

You authored a study on self-control and the avoidance of temptation. How does self-control play into achieving our goals?

Much of my work on self-control is based on the idea that avoiding temptations is a more reliable strategy than relying on willpower to consistently resist temptations. In three studies, I found that people who are especially adept at self-control tend to avoid rather than resist temptation.

For example, if people were trying to cut back on calories, they could avoid temptation by getting rid of junk food in the pantry and only buying healthy foods at the grocery store. That way, they wouldn’t have to summon prodigious willpower every time they went to the kitchen for a snack.

What are some strategies for making resolutions that we’re more likely to keep?

Setting specific goals aids self-control. A vague goal like, “I want to be a better member of the community,” can be easily reinterpreted to convince [the goal-setter] that they are succeeding without making any real progress. On the other hand, a concrete goal such as, “I want to spend one hour per week doing volunteer work that would benefit my community” gives a more specific criterion of success and therefore a clearer path toward achieving the goal.

Making use of “implementation intentions” can be quite useful, too. These are specific plans for when, where and how you’ll engage in a goal-directed behavior. They often take the form of, “When situation X arises, I will do Y.” For example, if you wanted to start meditating each workday, an implementation intention could be phrased as, “After I finish lunch, I will sit at my desk chair and engage in a five-minute meditation exercise using the meditation app on my phone.” Specificity is key.