How To Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions

One trick for keeping resolutions is to make it painful to break them, says Meyer Feldberg Professor of Business Gita Johar.

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Based on research by Mukhopadhyay Anirban, Gita Johar, and Cecile K. Cho
Icon art from the Noun Project: book by AliWijaya; Running Shoe by Mooms; Dumbbell by adriwidodo; Apple by Andrejs Kirma; Coins by Deemak Daksina; Handshake by Misha Petrishchev

Nearly half of all Americans will soon make a New Year’s resolution. One-third will fail to keep it, according to a Marist Poll.

Gita Johar, the Meyer Feldberg Professor of Business, has advice for how to stay steadfast: Make it painful to break your resolution. By self-imposing penalties for failing to keep resolutions, people can noticeably increase their likelihood of following through on them, according to her new research.

“In general, associating a negative outcome with giving in to a temptation should help people to resist temptations,” says Johar.

She adds that goal-setters should aim high and expect to succeed, which will spur you to try harder to achieve your goals. For those of us who find it hard to stay committed to resolutions — be it to exercising, dieting, or whatever vow we make — these simple tricks may be enough to turn half-hearted resolves into unshakeable goals.

Johar’s recommendations are based on more than a decade of research into the psychology behind making resolutions and achieving goals. In a new working paper titled “Seeking Pain for a Better Me” and coauthored with Liang Song of Beijing International Studies University and Xiuping Li of the National University of Singapore, Johar establishes across a series of experiments that self-punishment leads to heightened goal accessibility.

The idea of self-imposing penalties or restrictions to address self-control goes back to ancient Greece. In the Odyssey, for example, Odysseus ties himself to his ship’s mast so that he can resist the call of the Sirens. A modern example is a smartphone app that limits screen time and forces the user off the device. In a more extreme version of self-punishment, the alcoholism drug Antabuse causes a person to become physically ill if they drink alcohol.

Johar’s new research adds to the academic literature on self-punishment by proposing that people may seek out negative experiences as a response to self-control failure in order to restore their self-view. Enduring pain, in other words, is not just a nudge to do better in the future but also an inward sign of self-control. You feel you have more self-control if you’re able to withstand pain. Moreover, if you believe that self-control is a malleable quality, then you want to signal to yourself that you have self-control in the face of self-control failure, so you’re more likely to seek painful experiences in response to threats to self-view.

A Bitter Drink

For a “painful” experience to experiment with, Johar and her colleagues tested students’ willingness to drink bitter juice and to listen to unpleasant noise.

In one experiment, 205 undergraduate students were asked to recall a time they’d spent too much money in their estimation (an indicator of lack of self-control). They then either read an article that stated that negative sensory experiences are an indicator of a person’s self-control or that they say nothing about a person’s self-control. All students were then asked to rate the taste of a distastefully bitter juice, and the amount of juice they drank during this “taste-test” served to measure their degree of self-punishment. They then took a personality taste that gauged how malleable they believed their self-control to be.

The researchers found that students with a malleable belief of self-control, who read that negative experiences are an indicator of a person’s self-control, drank more bitter juice than all the others in the study. These students were punishing themselves with the bitter juice for their previous failure to exert self-control with money. The fact that only students who believed self-control to be malleable self-punished suggests that they saw the self-punishing act as a way of changing their future behavior.

In a second experiment, 159 undergraduates were asked to listen to an unpleasant noise for an unspecified period. Half the students had read an article claiming that “personality, like plaster, is pretty stable over time” while the other half read an article claiming that “personality is changeable and can be developed.” Half of each group were also told to write about a personal failure of self-control (drinking too much alcohol alone, for example) while the other half were told to recall an incident where others were to blame for a self-control failure (being coerced to drink too much alcohol, for example).

Students who’d both recalled a personal failure of self-control and who’d been told that “personality is changeable” listened to the noise for 9 seconds, which was nearly twice as long as any other group, highlighting again how self-punishment is linked to feelings of self-control and self-improvement.

“We consistently find that, upon recalling a self-control failure that one feels responsible for, individuals who believe their personal qualities can change (incremental theorists) are more likely to endure negative experiences,” according to the working paper. “To our knowledge, this research is the first to test the downstream consequences of self-affirming by self-punishing behavior.”

Further, enduring negative experiences in the face of self-control failure can be functional in that it helps people stay firm in the face of future temptations. “We demonstrate that enduring negative experiences boosts one’s self-view in the threatened domain and is more likely to promote better control in that domain,” the paper states.

Resoluteness

Johar’s latest research is in many ways a continuation of her 2005 paper Anirban Mukhopadhyay of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, titled “Where There Is a Will, Is There a Way? Effects of Lay Theories of Self-Control on Setting and Keeping Resolutions.” Published in the Journal of Consumer Research, the study found that individuals who believe self-control is a malleable and unlimited resource set the most resolutions and are also are most likely to achieve those resolutions. The paper also found that belief in self-control can be manipulated through simple literature readings, and these beliefs can persevere over time.  

“If your mindset is that self-control is a generally malleable (i.e., can grow over time and with practice) and unlimited resource, then you are more likely to set a greater number of resolutions,” explains Johar. “Success at keeping resolutions is also driven by your self-efficacy or your belief in your capabilities. If you have high self-efficacy, you have expectancies of success, and are likely to try harder to succeed and to persist.”

In the follow-up research paper “Attaining Satisfaction,” coauthored Cecile Cho of the University of California and also published in the Journal of Consumer Research, Johar found that people may set low goals because they don’t want to be disappointed in the future. Ironically, this strategy does not work — satisfaction with one’s performance is compared to what could have been (i.e., the potential performance) and not necessarily to the initially set low goal. 

Looked at another way, satisfied people tend to judge their performance based on their personal goals, while unsatisfied people tend to compare themselves to the best possible performance. So-called incremental theorists who believe that they can improve their performance also tend to fall into the group of people who are more satisfied, because they believe they tend to compare their performance to their initially set goal. They know they continue to have potential and that they can improve in the future.

“One takeaway from this finding it to set high, realistic goals and work hard to achieve them,” says Johar. “Even if you fall short by a bit, you would still be more successful (and perhaps equally satisfied) as if you set low goals and achieved them.”

From the standpoint of New Year’s resolutions, the takeaway is that you’ll be most satisfied in 2019 if you stay focused on your personal goals and back-stop them with firm self-punishments in case you start to slip. The website Lifehack recommends self-punishments such as a cold shower, buying a gift for your least favorite person, or donating to a charity you don’t like.

Johar, for her part, recommends the punishment of spending time with someone you dislike online or offline. If your resolution is to get physically fit or to lose weight, then each time you skip going to the gym or fail to eat healthy then you might force yourself to spend time with people whose politics you dislike.

“If I spend time with people I dislike every time I give in to temptation,” says Johar, “then the next time a temptation to skip the gym/eat cake comes up I will avoid giving in to it for two reasons — because I don’t have to suffer the pain and because I know I have the self-control to resist.”

About the researcher

Gita Johar

Gita V. Johar (PhD NYU 1993; MBA Indian Institute of Management Calcutta 1985) has been on the faculty of Columbia Business School since 1992 and is currently...

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