It's January, and once again, people are making public resolutions for self-improvement at the beginning of this new year. Whether it's "this year, I'm going to get in shape" or "I'm going to be a kinder person in 2017" or "now that the holidays are over, I'm going to get my finances under control," New Year's Resolutions abound.
In the past, I've written about why these resolutions often fail (e.g., poor self-control, bad execution strategies), but in this post, I consider a different issue: Why do people make these visible, explicit pledges at the beginning of a new year?
First, one thing that makes New Year's Resolutions different than many other goals is that people make them publicly. That is, they inform others about their plans, and they pursue these goals at a time of the year when people are sensitive to their existence.
Research suggests that such public pledges make it more likely that resolutions will succeed. First, public pronouncements are more effective because they increase people's accountability to others who can provide social support and who can also observe when people fall short on their goals, increasing the likelihood that people will not give up on their resolutions so easily (Lerner & Tetlock, 1999). Because we seek social connection and approval from others (Baumeister & Leary, 1995) and because goal selves are central to our self-concepts (McConnell, Brown, & Shoda, 2013), people will work hard to stay consistent with their plans when others are in on them.
Further, putting a public spotlight on people's behaviors increases the likelihood that they will focus more on long-term benefits instead of short-term (and often self-defeating) behaviors (Cialdini, 2009). Thus, the public nature of New Year's Resolutions makes such promises more effective by increasing the accountability to others and by leveraging the value of others' eyes in making failure harder to accept.
The New Year is a New Psychological Page
Another interesting component of New Year's Resolutions is that they happen in January. Presumably, the benefits of being in shape, being a nicer human being, or being more fiscally responsible are just as desirable in July as they are in January, so why does "the new year" have such magical appeal for resolutions?
In one sense, new years provide people with new "mental sets," which allow them to consider new possibilities. New mental sets get people to avoid functional fixedness, which is a cognitive bias that leads people to not be able to see new ways to solve old problems (e.g., Duncker, 1945). Sometimes, people need a "clean page" to believe that they can leave the past behind, and new calendar years provide people with fresh cognitive slates that provide the promise of new solutions and possibilities. Thus, new years provide new mental sets, allowing people to find new and more creative solutions to problems that have proven difficult to solve (Lubart, 2001).
The notion that judgment and decision making is affected by how people subjectively frame events is certainly not new (Kahneman & Tversky, 1984). For example, people like to experience positive outcomes (e.g., winning $250 in the lottery, getting a great grade in a class) on separate days but prefer to combine negative outcomes (e.g., losing a $250 nonrefundable ticket, getting a poor grade in a class) on the same day (Linville & Fischer, 1991). In short, everyday life experiences are affected by mental sets, which can be manipulated by temporal framing.
Finally, it is interesting that many of the goals espoused in New Year's Resolutions (e.g., losing weight, saving money) come immediately after a period where people's behavior often deviates from their ideals. For example, the desire to want to lose weight is probably magnified after a period of excessive holiday eating and when exercise is less likely because of wintry weather. As a result, the negative feelings that people experience when acting in ways inconsistent with their goals should magnify the drive to change one's direction (Carver, 2003), making periods immediately after the holidays especially attractive for improved behavior.
New years, compared to other spots on the calendar, make it easier to break mental sets and may come after a period when people's poor behavior is especially salient. As a result, January 1 allows people to mentally "turn the page" and chart a new path to reduce holiday guilt.
There are undoubtedly many reasons why people view January 1 as the time to set new goals. However, it is interesting why the start of a new calendar year lends itself to such promises to the self. It seems that social accountability of our public declarations and the ability to see a new year as a "new start" contribute significantly to people making New Year's Resolutions.
Perhaps there are two lessons to consider here. First, it's interesting to understand why new calendar years make such promises more likely. Second, because we often need to achieve our goals during the other 11 months of the year, it can be valuable to leverage the properties of New Year's Resolutions (e.g., public goals, breaking mental sets) for the entire year and not just its beginning. In sum, we can benefit throughout the year from self-improvement aspirations by better understanding why January is so attractive for New Year's Resolutions in the first place.
Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. F. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motive. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529.
Carver, C. S. (2003). Self-awareness. In M. R. Leary & J. P. Tangney (Eds.), Handbook of self and identity (pp. 179–196). New York: Guilford.
Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: Science and practice (5th edition). Boston: Pearson Education.
Duncker, K. (1945). On problem solving. Psychological Monographs, 58:5 (Whole No. 270).
Lerner, J. S., & Tetlock, P. E. (1999). Accounting for the effects of accountability. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 255-275.
Linville, P. W., & Fischer, G. W. (1991). Preferences for separating or combining events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 5-23.
Lubart, T. I. (2001). Models of the creative process: Past, present and future. Creativity Research Journal, 13, 295-308.
McConnell, A. R., Brown, C. M., & Shoda, T. M. (2013). The social cognition of the self. In D. E. Carlston (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of social cognition (pp. 497-516). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.