Making Stronger New Year's Resolutions

Using research on attitude strength, learn to make resolutions that last.

Posted Jan 06, 2020

According to some reports, close to 60 percent of you will have made a New Year’s resolution for 2020. At the same time, less than 10 percent of you will have maintained those resolutions one year from now.

So, how can we use psychological research to improve your chances of attaining your goals come January 1st, 2021?

The Science of Strong Attitudes

As described previously, behavioral scientists know a lot about what makes an attitude strong (i.e., what makes an opinion or belief resist persuasion, persist over time, and guide behavior). This insight is vital in making your own resolutions similarly durable and impactful.

Back in the 1960s, researchers first identified a number of bases upon which one’s attitude can be formed. In particular, our attitudes (i.e., our general positivity or negativity toward something) is based primarily on our cognitions (facts or reasons) or our affect (emotions or feelings).

For example, let’s say your New Year’s resolution is to exercise more—or in other words, you want to have a more positive attitude toward exercise.

On the one hand, you may try to increase your positivity toward exercise by focusing on all the health benefits it provides (i.e., cognitive bases for your attitude). Alternatively, you may try to focus on the enjoyable endorphins exercise generates (i.e., affective bases for your attitude).

So, which of these two bases is better to focus on for strengthening your resolutions?

In one study, Dr. Bas Verplanken and colleagues first measured the bases (i.e., affective and cognitive) of participants’ attitudes toward various consumer brands (e.g., IBM, Black & Decker, etc.). Later, they measured how quickly participants’ attitudes toward these brands came to mind—a reliable measure of an attitude’s strength (i.e., quicker times = stronger attitudes).

Over multiple topics, the researchers found a reliable dominance for affectively based attitudes: the more affect (vs. cognition) that participants had underlying their attitudes, the quicker those overall attitudes came to mind (i.e., the stronger those attitudes were).

So, if affectively-based attitudes tend to be stronger, how can you use this insight to improve the strength of your New Year’s resolutions?

Utilizing Affective Bases

When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, people usually try to motivate themselves with a cognitively-based benefit (e.g., exercise will make me healthier) in order to overcome an affectively-based cost (e.g., exercising is not fun). However, from the previous study, we already know that a cognitive basis will not produce the same attitude strength that an affective basis would.

In fact, researchers Dr. Kaitlin Woolley and Dr. Ayelet Fishbach demonstrated this very phenomenon with New Year’s resolutions specifically. That is, after participants reported their New Year’s resolutions in early January, Dr. Woolley and Dr. Fishbach followed up with those participants two months later to see how successful they had been in maintaining their resolutions.

In line with the prior work, the researchers found that the strength of participants’ affective bases for their New Year’s resolutions (e.g., how enjoyable the activity itself was; how positive an experience the activity provides) greatly predicted whether participants maintained their resolution two months later. Cognitive bases, however (e.g., how useful and important the activity was), had no meaningful effect on whether participants maintained their resolutions.

In fact, these researchers showed the same effects for exercising, healthy eating, academic persistence, and many other activities! The more affective bases (vs. cognitive bases) that a participant had for their attitude or resolution, the more likely they were to act on it.

Making Your Resolutions Affectively-Based

So, when it comes to designing resolutions, understanding the characteristics of strong attitudes can be a good way to help ensure your resolutions last.

For example, if you’re trying to exercise more, rather than do workouts that will be the most effective (a cognitive basis), choose the one that will itself be the most fun (an affective basis). Or, if trying to eat healthier, don’t choose between a healthy (i.e., cognitive) option and a tasty (i.e., affective) option. Instead, find two healthy options and choose the one that is tastier!

In general, by trying to structure your resolutions to be about the affect (vs. cognition) underlying the activities involved in them, you’ll have a better chance at getting those resolutions to resist temptation, persist over time, and guide your behavior!

References

Verplanken, B., Hofstee, G., & Janssen, H. J. (1998). Accessibility of affective versus cognitive components of attitudes. European Journal of Social Psychology, 28(1), 23-35.

Woolley, K., & Fishbach, A. (2016). For the fun of it: Harnessing immediate rewards to increase persistence in long-term goals. Journal of Consumer Research, 42(6), 952-966.

Woolley, K., & Fishbach, A. (2017). Immediate rewards predict adherence to long-term goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(2), 151-162.

Woolley, K., & Fishbach, A. (2018). It’s about time: Earlier rewards increase intrinsic motivation. Journal of personality and social psychology, 114(6), 877.