Why Resolutions Fail

Explains the persistence of the attitudes a person wanted to change, which was published in 'The Psychological Review' journal. Comments from Timothy Wilson, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.

By Melanie LeTourneau, published July 1, 2000 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

You survived the dreary winter--but did your New Year's resolution? If your resolve dissolved, you're not alone. A new look at research on dual or opposing attitudes explains why old habits tend to, well, die hard.

In a recently published article in The Psychological Review, a team of three psychologists proposed that the attitudes we seek to change often resurface because they're never fully forgotten. They suggest instead that new attitudes actually supplement the originals rather than replace them. In a sense, therefore, new and old attitudes coexist as opposing impulses that are constantly competing. So while one healthful thought--vowing to eat fewer sweets--may turn dominant, another, less healthful thought--one chocolate eclair is harmless--permanently looms in our subconscious.

So should we just give up? Not according to Timothy Wilson, Ph.D., co-author of the study and a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. "Changing may be difficult, but that doesn't mean we can't do it," he explains. To disarm undesirable attitudes, Wilson suggests that we "break the cycle of behavior first." To change an attitude toward food, for example, start by altering eating habits. "if we find ourselves eating healthful food, we might eventually conclude that we like it," Wilson says. Since chocolate eclairs taste much better than broccoli, realizing that we still like broccoli may give it a fighting chance.