Why can’t I keep my New Year’s resolution?

January 5th, 2009

One-on-one with psychology professor Peter Herman

How successful are most New Year’s resolutions?
The odds are stacked pretty heavily against you. Researchers have looked at success rates of New Year’s resolutions: the first two weeks everything works beautifully, but by the time February rolls around people are backsliding. By the following December, people are pretty much back where they started, sometimes even further behind. They’re preparing themselves to recommit and probably to make the same resolution again. That’s one of the ironic parts of New Year’s resolutions—people make the same resolutions year after year, which tells you something about how successful they are.

Why do most resolutions fail?
My colleague Janet Polivy and I have worked on what we call the “false hope syndrome.” Generally, we argue that people fail because the resolutions that they make are unrealistic. They’re overly ambitious in that they try to accomplish more than they realistically can. They also try to accomplish more things more quickly than is realistically possible and they underestimate the difficulty of the task. Our research happens to be in the domain of food and dieting. So if you apply this idea to dieting, you can see that people try to lose too much weight—and that they think they can lose it more quickly and more easily than they actually can.

The one other thing that’s relevant in this context is a secondary aspect of failure. Even if you succeed in losing as much weight as you hoped, as quickly and as easily as you’d hoped, there is still room for failure in the sense that the changes in your life that you expected to follow often fail to materialize. People often want to lose weight because they believe that it’s going to improve their lives—career, health, social life. What a lot of people find is that even when they get the number on the scale down to where they were hoping it would be, those things don’t happen. Prince Charming doesn’t come along, and they don’t get the raise that they were expecting.

You mentioned that people often make the same resolutions year after year. Why do they keep trying?
Psychology argues that if behaviour is not rewarded, it’s supposed to get extinguished. But that doesn’t seem to be happening here. So we thought there must be something going on that isn’t immediately evident.

We tried to break down what happens during a typical resolution. One of the things that we discovered is that people initially lose weight, but then the rate of weight loss starts to slow down, and finally it stops. And then eventually it goes back up. We believe that people are seduced by that initial precipitous weight loss into believing that that’s the real phenomenon. That’s what’s possible. What happens after that, when weight loss slows down, stops, and reverses, is exceptional. People are very quick to blame themselves for the deterioration of the diet. People often say to themselves, “well, I ran out of willpower, my effort declined, and that explains why my weight took the trajectory that it did.” Our own belief is that that is not the case, that the reason that your weight loss slows down and stops is more a physiological matter than a matter of willpower.

People are in effect making a misattribution, saying, “I was able to sustain this weight loss initially but I couldn’t keep up the effort. But next time I’ll be able to succeed.” The trick here is to understand how people explain away their failure in such a way that it allows them to convince themselves that they will be able to avoid that failure on a subsequent occasion.

What about the diet industry?

If you read the prologue to a diet book, it almost always says, “we know you’ve dieted before and you’ve failed. The reason is that the diets that you’ve tried before do X,Y and Z. Our diet is different. It involves a new principle, so things are going to go much more smoothly for you. And in fact, you don’t even need much effort to succeed on this diet because of this magical nutritional principle that we exploit.”

So in this case the blame is put on the particular technique that you were using previously and now you have a superior technique available. Every diet sells itself by saying, “we have a leg up on the other diets.” This allows people to explain their previous failure and it permits them to convince themselves that the next time is going to be different.

Another feature that I’ve noticed is that testimonials often provide exemplars of tremendous change. The before-and-after stories may even be accurate, but the question is, are they representative? I believe someone can lose 60 pounds and keep it off, but such people can be counted on one hand. Most people think, “Yeah, that can be me.” But the people who are succeeding are not like you, they’re statistically abnormal.

What’s your advice for people making resolutions?
If you’re going to attempt self change—and it can be any time of the year—you have to be realistic. You’d think that that’s pretty obvious, but “realistic” often means something less than what you’re being sold.  People do tend to overestimate other people’s success and what’s possible. A lot of this is just a matter of the wish being father to the ambition.

When we’re making a resolution, why not shoot for the stars?  When you put it like that, it makes sense. But when you shoot for the stars, you’re likely to crash and burn. Being realistic is something that most people like to think they are, but there’s something about the whole mystique of resolutions that somehow puts a little too much juice into the proposition. It’s a subtle business. You have to calibrate your ambitions to your abilities.