Wouldn’t it be great if you had total control over your own behavior? In a world where you have 100% self-control:
Wow, look at you!
Well, as you probably know full well, we are not perfect. And if you follow my work, you know that I see evolution as the ultimate way to understand the nature of humans—imperfections and all (see my book, Evolutionary Psychology 101, for a brief exploration of this topic).
Given the time of year, I got thinking about New Year’s resolutions—and guess what? Common themes in New Year’s resolutions map strongly onto our evolved psychology. Below are the top five New Year’s resolutions, according to a major 2015 Nielsen survey of adults in the USA (including the percentage of those in the sample who stated each as their top resolution). I also include an evolutionary explanation for why each resolution is so common among folks like us.
Most Common New Year’s Resolutions
1. Stay fit and healthy (37%)
Gyms all across the land have special deals this time of year. And Americans across the land vow that 2018 will be the year! I will go to the gym at least three times a week! I am going to finally join CrossFit! I will pick up running and run a 10K by spring! Etc.
Well, guess what: It’s easier to stay home and be lazy! And like all animals, humans evolved to expend energy only when it's required. Under ancestral conditions, when you needed to use a lot of energy on a daily basis in a small-scale nomadic society, you didn’t have to join a gym. You would walk or run up to 20 miles a day and would be lifting all kinds of heavy objects. Modern conditions are famously mismatched from ancestral conditions—and our psychology that tells us to expend the least amount of physical energy possible is decidedly tuned into those ancestral conditions and not into the nature of modern human environments. This is why the stairmaster in your basement is covered with dust (see Platek et al., 2011).
2. Lose weight (32%)
One of the great ironies of modern living pertains to what we call “diseases of civilization.” Obesity, Type-II diabetes, and many cardiac conditions fall under this umbrella. And they all tie into the fact that our minds and bodies evolved in the African savanna across thousands of generations—during a time in which famine was common and no processed food existed. Times have changed, but our food preferences have not. And that is a problem. We evolved to desire foods that are high in sugar and high in fat because under ancestral conditions, such foods were rare. These days, we have these same food preferences, but high fat and high sugar foods are a dime a dozen and are, in fact, more easily accessible now, ironically, than are natural foods for most Americans. The result is the fact that so many of us have weight problems. Being overweight in a modern society is ultimately the result of evolutionary mismatch. As I’ve written about extensively in the past, if you want to reach your optimal weight, I say don’t spend a dime on some fancy weight loss program—simply only eat the kinds of foods that would have been available to our pre-agrarian ancestors. And make no exceptions. It works (see Wolf, 2010). Here is a brief “HawkTalk” video of me explaining the evolutionary reasoning on this one in detail.
3. Live life to the fullest (28%)
It is often the case that we are never satisfied, and this is part of our evolutionary design (see Nesse & Ellsworth, 2009). Did you ever have a goal that was so lofty in your mind that you told yourself that once that goal was met, you’d never want again—that you’d be a satisfied person beyond that point? And then the next day you find yourself needing to work toward something else? We are motivated creatures—as are all animals that evolved via forces such as natural selection. In many ways, we are the never-satisfied ape. So the fact that more than a quarter of us feel like we need to do a better job of “living life to the fullest” comes as no surprise when we think about things from an evolutionary perspective.
4. Spend less, save more (25%)
Under ancestral conditions, taking on credit card debt was not an option. Our minds did not evolve to be able to effectively take modern economic and fiscal issues into account. This is partly why people often find courses in economics to be complicated and difficult to understand. Further, there is all kinds of evidence showing that modern humans actually will overspend using modern fiscal technologies, such as credit cards, so as to present themselves as having more than they actually do (see Kruger, 2008)—a strategy that, perhaps unfortunately, can actually lead to various kinds of social successes. If you’re not as great with money management as you wish you were, you can partly blame evolutionary mismatch.
5. Spend more time with family and friends (19%)
If you want to talk about evolutionarily mismatched human conditions, think about the nature of modern family structures compared with ancestral family structures. Under ancestral conditions, all humans lived in nomadic groups—surrounded only by kin and by individuals with whom one had long-standing social connections. These days, you might live in New York, your mom might live in Florida, and your dad might live in Jersey. Your brother might live in LA. Your in-laws might be similarly dispersed across the country. Or you might have relatives on other continents. There are all kinds of great things associated with the modern, globalized world—but from an evolutionary perspective, we’d be wise to also think about the costs associated with modernization. Humans evolved to be surrounded by kin and by long-standing friends. So it’s not at all surprising to see that such so many modern Americans yearn to better connect with friends and family.
If you’re like most Americans, you have at least one resolution for 2018 (interestingly, only 16% of Americans surveyed by Nielsen reported having no resolution). An evolutionary perspective can help us best understand the nature of New Year’s resolutions in general. We want to lose weight and get fit because the exercise requirements and dietary options in our modern worlds do not match the conditions that surrounded human evolution. We want to live life to the fullest, because we evolved, for better or worse, to never be satisfied. We wish to be better with money because our minds did not evolve to take things such as credit cards into account. And we are resolving to stay better connected with family and friends because under the conditions that existed during human evolution, our ancestors were always surrounded by family and friends.
Want to improve your chances of actually keeping your resolution in 2018? My suggestion is this: Don’t lose sight of the evolutionary forces that serve as the ultimate foundation for your New Year's resolution.
Dunbar, R. I. M. (1992). Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates. Journal of Human Evolution, 22(6), 469–493.
Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.
Kruger, D.J. (2008). Male financial consumption is associated with higher mating intentions and mating success. Evolutionary Psychology, 6, 603-612.
Nesse,R.M., & Ellsworth, P.C. (2009). Evolution, emotions, and emotional disorders. American Psychologist, 64, 129–139.
Platek, S., Geher, G., Heywood, L., Stapell, H., Porter, R., & Waters, T. (2011). Walking the walk to teach the talk: Implementing ancestral lifestyle changes as the newest tool in evolutionary studies. Evolution: Education & Outreach, 4, 41-51. Special issue on EvoS Consortium (R. Chang, G. Geher, J. Waldo, & D. S. Wilson, Eds).
Wolff, R. (2010). The Paleo Solution. Las Vegas, NV. Victory Belt Publishing.