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The Dark Side of New Year’s Resolutions

Can striving for self-improvement harm you?

Around this time of year, everyone and their mother is blogging about how to start a New Year’s Resolution. Now these experts have lots of good advice (e.g., set concrete goals, monitor your goal daily, don’t adopt more than one goal at a time), but there is something they aren’t telling you. There is a rarely discussed dark side to setting resolutions and it is this…striving for goals makes you gullible (or should I say “goalible”).

When people strive for a new goal—whether it’s to lose 10 pounds, stick to a budget, or cut back on their cursing—they must exert willpower or self-control to resist temptations and stay on the goal-directed path. The problem though is that self-control is a limited resource, meaning you only have so much gas in your tank. Use that gas up on your resolution, and you have less left over for the other aspects of their life. So far this may not sound so bad, but when we are low in self-control resources, we become vulnerable to all sorts of undesirable influences. Consider this: nearly every form of extreme social influence (i.e., brainwashing) first involves some “wearing down” phase where the victim is subjected to exhausting interrogations and is prevented from resting or sleeping. This is the approach used in POW camps, but also in cults, fraternity and sorority hazings, and even police interrogations. In nearly every case where someone has confessed to a crime that they in fact didn’t commit, they were first subjected to long police interrogations designed to “break their will” and soften them up. As one thought-reform victim described his experience, “You are annihilated, exhausted, you can’t control yourself. . . . You accept anything he says” (Lifton, 1961, p. 23). The implication here is that anything that forces you to exert self-control or prevents you from resting to replenish your self-control makes you vulnerable to the persuasive influence of others. Fraternities for example often force their pledges to eat unsavory foods during their hazing as a “wearing down” technique (Cialdini, 2001); the same procedure that psychologists use in the laboratory to deplete self-control resources (Baumeister et al., 1998). So when you exert self-control on your New Year’s resolution, you are making yourself vulnerable to the influence of advertisers, salespeople, and the like.

To test if self-control exertion does weaken our ability to resist persuasive messages, Dr. Edward Burkley (who just so happens to be my husband) conducted a series of studies. He first tested if people exert self-control when trying to resist persuasive arguments (Burkley, 2008). In one such study, freshman college students read an essay that argued to shorten their summer break to just one month. If you know anything about college students, you know they definitely don’t want their summer break to be cut by two-thirds, so clearly they were resistant to this persuasive message. But Burkley ratcheted up the resistance even more by telling half of the participants that the change would be occur in just two years and therefore would affect them personally. The other half read this change would occur in ten years so it would have no affect on their break. Not surprisingly, participants in the 2-year condition were more resistant to the persuasive message than those in the 10-year condition. Next, all the participants completed a task that required self-control to persist (e.g., unscrambling anagrams that were unsolvable). The results indicated that the students who were more resistant to the persuasive message (2-year condition) gave up quicker on the self-control task than those who were less resistant. They had used up their self-control resources trying to resist the persuasive message and so had less available for the second task.

Second, Burkley tested if people who are low in self-control resources are more easily persuaded. To accomplish this task, he had people exert self-control on a seemingly unrelated thought control task (i.e., write down your thoughts but don’t think of a white bear). Then he gave them a persuasive message to read. This time, the message argued that all senior students would have to pass a mandatory exam to graduate (something students are also very much against). For some of the students, the essay included only weak arguments for adopting the mandatory exam (e.g., my mom thinks it is a good idea). For others, the essay included strong arguments (e.g., the best schools in the country already have mandatory exams). Resisting the weak version of the message is easy and therefore should not require much self-control. But resisting the strong version is harder and should therefore result in self-control depletion. Finally, all the participants indicated their personal attitude toward mandatory exams. The results showed that when participants read the weak message, prior self-control exertion had little impact on their attitude. However, when participants read the strong message, they were more in favor of the exam if they had first exerted self-control on the prior task. In a sense, these students had been brainwashed to think that mandatory exams were a good thing and this was accomplished simply by having them exert willpower on an earlier task.

The results of these studies are pretty powerful. After exerting self-control for just a few minutes, people were left depleted and vulnerable to persuasive messages. Students were brainwashed to believe that shortening their summer of forcing them to complete a mandatory exam was a good idea. If five minutes of self-control exertion can have such radical effects, think about what going on a diet or trying to quit smoking could do!

So how do we protect ourselves? Do we just give up on New Year’s resolutions? Certainly not (though this may be one of the reasons we often do). Goals are a major cornerstone to living a happy and healthy life. We can’t just avoid them. But what we can do is be mindful of our self-control exertion so that we can protect ourselves against others’ influences during this vulnerable state. If you are starting out this year with a resolution, you may want to avoid watching QVC, avoid the shopping malls, and avoid any friends or family who may be hitting you up for a loan. Realize you are in a very vulnerable place, especially during the first few days of your goal striving, and protect yourself accordingly. On the other hand, if someone else in your life is starting their New Year’s resolution, now may be the perfect time to ask your spouse for that back rub, your parents for that loan, or your boss for that raise!

Recommended Readings:

Burkley, E., Anderson, D., & Curtis, J. (2011). You wore me down: Self-control and social influence. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5, 487-499.

Burkley, E. (2008) The role of self-control in resistance to persuasion. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 419-431.

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