MELBOURNE — Did you make any New Year’s resolutions? Perhaps you resolved to get fit, to lose weight, to save more money or to drink less alcohol. Or your resolution may have been more altruistic: to help those in need, or to reduce your carbon footprint. But are you keeping your resolution?
We are not yet far into 2010, but studies show that fewer than half of those who make New Year’s resolutions manage to keep them for as long as one month. What does this tell us about human nature, and our ability to live either prudently or ethically?
Part of the problem, of course, is that we make resolutions to do only things that we are not otherwise likely to do. Only an anorexic would resolve to eat ice cream at least once a week, and only a workaholic would resolve to spend more time in front of the television. So we use the occasion of the new year to try to change behavior that may be the most difficult to change. That makes failure a distinct possibility.
Nevertheless, presumably we make resolutions because we have decided that it would be best to do whatever it is that we are resolving to do. But if we have already made that decision, why don’t we just do it? From Socrates on that question has puzzled philosophers. In the “Protagoras,” one of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates says that no one chooses what they know to be bad. Hence choosing what is bad is a kind of error: people will do it only if they think that it is good. If we can teach people what is best, Socrates and Plato seem to have thought, they will do it. But that is a hard doctrine to swallow — much harder than eating the extra slice of cake that you know is not good for you.
Aristotle took a different view, one that fits better with our everyday experience of failing to do what we know to be best. Our reason may tell us what is best to do, he thought, but in a particular moment our reason may be overwhelmed by emotion or desire. Thus, the problem is not lack of knowledge, but the failure of our reason to master other, non-rational aspects of our nature.
That view is supported by recent scientific work showing that much of our behavior is based on very rapid, instinctive, emotionally based responses. Although we are capable of deciding what to do on the basis of rational thought processes, such decisions often prove less powerful than our instinctive feelings in moving us to action.
What does this have to do with keeping resolutions? MIT philosophy professor Richard Holton, author of “Willing, Wanting, Waiting,” says a resolution is an attempt to overcome the problem of maintaining an intention when we expect that, at some future time, we will face inclinations contrary to our intention. Right now, we want to lose weight and we are rationally convinced that this is more important than the pleasure we will get from that extra slice of cake. But we anticipate that, faced with cake tomorrow, our desire for that rich chocolate texture will distort our reasoning so that we might convince ourselves that putting on just a little more weight doesn’t matter all that much.
To prevent that, we seek to shore up our current intention to lose weight. By making a solemn resolution and telling our family and close friends about it, we tilt the scales against succumbing to temptation. If we fail to keep our resolution, we will have to admit that we are less in control of our behavior than we had hoped, thus losing face in our own eyes and in the eyes of others about whom we care.
This fits well with what psychologists have discovered about how we can improve the odds that we will keep our resolutions. Richard Wiseman, a professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, has tracked 5,000 people who made New Year’s resolutions. Only about one in 10 managed to stick to what they had resolved. In his recently released book, “59 Seconds,” Wiseman sets out the things that you can do to make success more likely: * Break your resolution into a series of small steps; * Tell your family and friends about your resolution, thus both gaining support and increasing the personal cost of failure; * Regularly remind yourself of the benefits of achieving your goal; * Give yourself a small reward each time you achieve one of the steps toward your goal; * Keep track of your progress toward your goal, for example by keeping a journal or putting a chart on the fridge door.
Individually, each of these factors seems trivial. Collectively, they are ways of exerting our self-control not only now, but in the future as well. If we succeed, the behavior we judge to be better will become habitual — and thus no longer require a conscious act of will to keep acting in that way.
These tools for keeping a New Year’s resolution can help us to make progress, not only in losing weight or staying out of debt, but also in living more ethically. We may even find that that is the best resolution to make, for our own benefit and that of others.
Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University and laureate professor in the Center for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne. © 2010 Project Syndicate