If you’re like millions of other adults around the world, January 1 brings a time for health-related resolutions, particularly those involving diet, weight loss and exercise. The included Google Trends graph (interactive version here) with exercise in blue, diet in red, and weight loss in yellow tells the story: just look at the seasonal variations in the interest over time of these three search terms. Lowest number of google hits each year? December. Highest number? January.
So, it’s no surprise that we make resolutions related to health (money and finance is another hot resolution area), but the bigger question is whether we keep them. Are they successful? Do they help? According to Professor Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire in England, the answer is a resounding no. Wiseman, the author of the book Quirkology: The Curious Science of Everyday Lives, details the following New Year’s Resolution experiment:
“Throughout 2007, we tracked over 3000 people attempting to achieve a range of resolutions, including losing weight, visiting the gym, quitting smoking, and drinking less. At the start of the study, 52% of participants were confident of success. One year later, only 12% actually achieved their goal. The study uncovered why so many people fail, and what can be done to help ensure success. During the experiment, people were randomly placed into one of several groups, and asked to follow different advice. Large differences emerged between the approaches that best suited men and woman. Men were significantly more likely to succeed when asked to engage in either goal setting (e.g., instead of trying to lose weight in general, aiming to lose a pound each week), or focusing on the rewards associated with achieving their goal (e.g., being more attractive to the opposite sex). Women were more successful when they told their friends and family about their resolution, or were encouraged to be especially resilient and not to give up because they had reverted to the old habits (e.g., if dieting, treating a chocolate binge as a temporary setback rather than as failure). These simple differences often had surprisingly large effects. An extra 22% of men achieved their resolution when they engaged in goal setting, and women were almost 10% more likely to be successful when encouraged to persist in the face of setbacks.”
So, for men, setting specific, measurable goals and focusing on the rewards seems to improve the effectiveness of resolutions. And, for women, going public and being resilient is likely more salient for success. In addition, although it’s great to be a committed optimist, it is useful to recognize the low statistical likelihood of resolving to make a dramatic lifestyle change in January that will translate into measurable effects a year later. It’s far more likely that embracing specific, incremental behaviors towards better health– without the pressure of an overarching proclamation– will result in positive changes over the upcoming year.
And finally, I urge you to check out the Quirkology website for hours of engaging and intriguing fun, as Wiseman has conducted research on a variety of psychological topics (from the effect of last names on success to our ability to detect liars) that really do illustrate the curious lives in which we live. For example, in the Pet Personality Project, he reports that:
“Large differences also emerged between the personalities of pet owners. Fish owners were the happiest, dog owners the most fun to be with, cat owners the most dependable and emotionally sensitive, and reptile owners the most independent. The work also revealed telling differences when it came to rating pets’ sense of humour, and suggested that 62% of dogs had a good sense of humour, compared to just 57% of fish, 48% of cats, 42% of horses, 38% of birds and 0% of reptiles.“
Interested in analyzing yourself? Watching videos of psychological experiments such as the one below? The website has it all. Happy New Year!