Wednesday, December 17, 2008

On New Year's Resolutions (by Tirta)

Hi there. As our favorite psychologist Tirta reminds us, we're approaching the end of the year again. We don't like being older. But as you can't deny gravity or greed, time is unbeatable. And we like to fool ourselves by sweet resolutions, only to fail them very quickly. The dumbfounded psychologist offers his explanation. Enjoy! -- Kate

ps. Sorry the fonts were too small. I have fixed 'em now.
pps. Forgot to tell you. It took me awhile before realizing that the smart Dumbfounded Psychologist @ Australia is our own guest blogger, Tirta. Of course he didn't tell me that. (Well to tell you the truth, I took one special course in Langley long time ago. I can read patterns in writings and then identify the writer with 98% accuracy - so far). So my apologies, Tirta; Peter Parker might have to order another spidey costume?

On New Year's Resolutions
by Tirta

Dear Cafe Salemba goers,

It's that time of the year again, when we all stop, sit, and reflect on what we have done in the past twelve months, and what we would like to do in the upcoming twelve. Yes, it's time for New Year's resolutions, time for all sorts of admirable pacts between our present and future selves, from reading more books to smoking less.

Yet it's almost a truism that only about a third of these resolutions will be eventually fulfilled, as we will fail another third, and the last third...well, we won't even remember what the last third are. And then it comes full circle, when in twelve months time, we will sketch another list of things to commit to in the year to come, and again fail two-third of them. And so it goes, annually.

For any psychologist (including a dumbfounded one, like me), this has to be one of the most intriguing habits of our species. So in my last visit to the cafe this year, I'm going to sip some regular flat white, as usual, and chat a little bit about why we're not that good when dealing with annual resolutions. I'll also share some ideas that might be useful to overcome this problem.

Here's why New Year's resolutions are awfully hard to stick to. When we make commitments, we simulate what lies ahead. We travel mentally into the future, and imagine ourselves doing what we think we should do. We see ourselves sitting in a desk, diligently reading serious books; we see ourselves in a cafe, sipping coffee and having good conversations sans cigarette. All too easy for creatures as smart as us.

The simplicity of this simulation, however, is deceptive. The brain, because it was naturally built in a kludged manner over millions of years, is not an ideal tool for future peeking purposes. It can never fill in all the important details, such as the gossip magazines that will be scattered around our desk, and the smoking friends who will seem to enjoy themselves more than we do. And as they always say: The devil is in the details. All of a sudden there is a profound change in the equation: Books appear boring and cigarette seems irresistible -- and there you have it: We find ourselves back to magazines and nicotine again, before January ends.

Now multiply this simple example by some orders of magnitude, and you have a psychological explanation why New Year's resolutions don't work. So if you, in a few weeks time, find yourself not making it to the fourth item on your resolution list, you can at least understand why: It's because your brain is an imperfect biological organ that lives primarily in the present1, not an ideal logical machine in some atemporal planet.

Okay. Now the antidotes. I have two. One psychological, the other sociological. Wait...make it three (I'm pretty sure I have to have an economic one, or else Kate and the barristas will kick me out of this place).

First the psychological. In one set of randomised experiments, my colleague Roy Baumeister found that self-control tasks depleted people of blood sugar more than other, comparable tasks; in another set of experiments, he showed that
people who consumed blood sugar during the experiment performed better in a number of self-control tasks relative to the control group2. Blood sugar, he then went on theorising, is the fuel of our self-control engine. Whenever we need to exercise self-control to commit ourselves to things we wouldn't otherwise do, like faithfully adhering to New Year's resolutions, we need to refill our blood sugar. So next year, make sure you have enough blood sugar before opening that first chapter of the book, or before going out with your smoker friends.

The sociological solution is a non-brainer: Socialise with the right crowd. Find yourselves, as often as possible, among bookworms and non-smokers. Recent research by the sociologist Nicholas Christakis has shown how smoking, obesity, and even happiness may spread from person to person in a dynamic social network 3. Unless you prefer to live your life in an atomic fashion, hang out with those who are more likely to help you with your set of resolutions. No, it's not manipulating others for your selfish benefit, it's applying the insights from the new science of network4.

Finally, the favourite solution of your manager and hosts. Some dismal scientists have recently pursued the time-honoured idea that better commitments requires better financial incentives. Last year, Jordan Golberg, Dean Karlan, and Ian Ayres set up a virtual company called, where you can put some money in and ask the company to give it away to your most hated charity every time you fail to finish that first chapter of the book or find yourselves holding a burning cigarette. You will commit, their reasoning goes, when there is something significant (read: money) at stake.

That's it folks. I'm off for a holiday now.

Oh, one last thing before I go. To Kate, Aco, Ujang, Sjamsu, Ape, and Rizal: Thanks for being generous to psychology over the years; I just noticed that among the tags on the right, psychology (14) fares rather well, on a par with capitalism, competition, econ 101, and household economics, and above corruption (8), financial market (11), labor economics (13), macroeconomics (13), poverty (13), and property rights (8). Well done shrinks!

Happy New Year 2009,
Your Dumbfounded Psychologist @ Down Under

1 Some of you might raise your eyebrows here and wonder: What about memory? Surely that's a sign that the brain also lives in the past? Well no, that is not true. Memories, according to Psych 101, are never recalled, they are reconstructed. One of the most groundbreaking neuroscience findings this year is that brain cells that fired when one experienced an event for the first time fire again whenever one is remembering that event -- which indicates that remembering, in fact, is re-experiencing.
If you don't believe me, say hi to the Belligerent Sociologist @ New York. He would be delighted to tell you all you need to know about this new science.


  1. Is DfP@Oz really Tirta? Could it be that Tirta just played a Harvey Dent?

  2. oh god, i hope not. i was so sure he's tirta! now you scare me, a.p.! don't you see? they're so... same! geez, i don't know what to say to langley if i missed this one...

  3. Inevitably, that introspection turns to thoughts of self-improvement and the annual ritual of making resolutions, which offer the first of many important tools for remaking ourselves.

  4. why does "psychology work" by this guy receive very low comment in the cafe-even if there were some, it was very often not related to the topics?

    Well, because this science is not written interestingly by its own pundit. Suppose that an economist writes on it, it attracts comments from many sides.