Science Of Small Talk

The science of social behavior, one interaction at a time

A Once-a-Year Reality Check

Why we need New Year's Resolutions even more than we think we do.
_I've come to the conclusion that it's a great and important idea, this whole New Year's resolution business. One day out of 365 set aside for us to do what we're ordinarily not very good at–recognizing our own limitations and identifying needs for improvement. The other 364, we're more like the dieter who goes out of his way to inspect progress via "friendly" scale or mirror, feeling the need to take stock of who we are and how we're doing, but not really wanting the unvarnished, unblemished truth.

My university had a health and wellness screening a few months ago. I participated, and I'll make no excuses as to what my motivation was: I wanted the $40 gift card that went along with it. I mean, what better way to inspire me to get my vital signs checked than to offer me credit at any number of restaurants that serve an array of fried appetizers?

Only in America: Take the first step towards a healthier lifestyle and lower cholesterol. Win a free bloomin' onion for your trouble!

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At this session, I was surprised to hear that one of my aforementioned vital signs was not in the "normal" range one would expect. (Note to current and future health insurance providers: it was only borderline "abnormal" and has since reverted to form with minor lifestyle change and the passage of time. It is not cause to drop me from the health plan. It is not a pre-existing condition. I repeat, not a pre-existing condition. Thank you.)

You'd be amazed at the mental gymnastics I went through in order to convince myself that this was some sort of mistake. The room where the screening took place was hot and crowded. They were disorganized enough that they could have transposed digits or confused samples. It was the midterm crunch and I, like everyone else there, was even more stressed than usual. The election was coming up and I had stayed up too late the night before reading polls on line. Seriously. I remember telling myself that.

I went so far as to try to cajole the friendly nurse into taking another measurement. She gave me a look that said, everybody thinks the number is wrong, but it never is. Still, I figured I was the exception, and though I knew it was a big hassle for her, I badgered her until she gave in. The second measurement wound up being not that much better than the first, of course.

In retrospect, I was willing to go to great lengths to refute the objective information being presented to me, simply because it was threatening. I went so far as to spend the first 10 minutes of my research methods lecture later that morning using my health screening experience as an illustrative example of the concept of measurement error. That'll teach them to mess with me, I figured.

We do this type of thing all the time. As many a psychologist has observed and demonstrated empirically, our processes of self-perception are very often less focused on accuracy than on self-enhancement and self-protection.

Sam Sommers, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Tufts University and author of the forthcoming book Situations Matter. more...

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