The first I ever heard of New Year resolutions was after I moved from Spain to the US for my postdoctoral training, in 1997. In Spain, the New Year’s party rituals are different too: instead of a countdown of the last ten seconds followed by a rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,” we Spaniards close the year by eating twelve grapes of luck— or “uvas de la suerte”—one for each of the twelve strokes of midnight’s bells. The grape-eating custom—said to have been started by grape growers in the early 20th century—is akin to blowing out the candles on your birthday cake. You formulate a wish just as midnight approaches (some people do twelve wishes, but I think that’s just greedy). Then, if you perform the ritual without mistakes (you have no grapes left after the twelfth bell, and you pop the last grape in your mouth simultaneously with the twelfth bell), your wish(es) are said to come true.
Thus, how the New Year will turn out is more a matter of eye-hand-mouth coordination skills than anything else. By contrast, making a list of resolutions for the New Year (a tradition rooted in Puritan beliefs, a quick internet search reveals) places the burden of the next twelve months’ outcome smack on the person making the list, and his or her moral fortitude. Setting aside what the two traditions might indicate about Spanish versus US culture, the point is that I was unfamiliar with the idea of New Year resolutions as a child and young adult (although I hear that the concept, just like the notion of Halloween and Black Friday) is catching up across the Atlantic. Indeed, I had never written down a list of New Year resolutions… but just now I did for the first time ever.
The reason for the change? A paper just published in Psychological Science, with the enticing title “Put Your Imperfections behind You: Temporal Landmarks Spur Goal Initiation When They Signal New Beginnings.” A team of scientists from Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Pennsylvania set out to explore, in a series of experiments, why certain dates are more likely to inspire people to pursue their goals (start a new diet, give up smoking, ramp up their exercise regime). The scientists also asked whether people’s strengthened resolve at particular temporal landmarks might be linked to their distancing themselves, psychologically, from their past, imperfect personas.
The researchers reasoned that salient temporal landmarks may spur goal initiation because they signal new beginnings (i.e. an opportunity to clean the slate and start from scratch). Such transition points include those in social timetables (the start of holidays, the beginning of the New Year), as well as personal life events, recurring (a birthday, a wedding anniversary) and not (a first date, going away to college, moving to a new city). Previous research had already shown that temporal landmarks serve as dividers between people’s past, present, and future selves, weakening the psychological connection between them.
[As an aside, I find the last point fascinating: most of us experience a sense of continuity between who we are now and who we used to be. Even if the actual connection between our past and present selves is tenuous, our autobiographical memories provide usually inescapable evidence that, however different we may feel from the way we were at the age of 4 or 14, we are the same people nevertheless. Even though personal continuity may be a necessary, adaptive illusion, it can nevertheless prevents us from effecting major changes in our behavior (“This is who I am, so there’s nothing I can do to change”). Yet, if the construct of a continuous self does weaken at major temporal milestones, such dates may allow the possibility of new and improved selves to be born)].
The scientists further hypothesized that the more starkly the temporal milestone marked the start of a new period, the more psychological distance it should create between past and present selves. The disconnect between the current self and past imperfections could promote goal initiation in multiple ways: boosting perceived self-efficacy, lessening perceived self-tarnish from recent failures, and creating a clean slate–so that deviating from the goal (say, cheating on one’s diet) may loom much more disastrous than if it is just one more in a long list of infractions.
Throughout the experimental series, the researchers found that temporal landmarks associated with new beginnings (i.e. both the start of a season and that of an academy period) were more appealing choices to jumpstart habit changes than ordinary dates. Consistent with these findings, Jewish participants also felt that the same date (October 5th) was more indicative of a new beginning when described as “the first day after Yom Kippur” than as “the 278th day of the year.”
The scientists then recruited a sample of participants that planned to pursue a goal in the New Year. They asked half of the participants to write 3 to 5 reasons why the New Year felt meaningful to them, and the other half to write 3 to 5 reasons why this New Year felt ordinary to them. The people that wrote reasons why the New Year felt like a new beginning spent more time in goal-related activities, such as goal-tracking Web sites and written information on how people may increase their chances of achieving their goals.
Next, the team set out to exclude the alternate possibility that people simply start new activities (congruent or incongruent with achieving goals) at temporal milestones. Here, experimental participants were given a fictional scenario, in which a Chinese man named Chang turned 36 (which the researchers described as the beginning of a new zodiac cycle to only half of the participants). Chang’s birthday coincided with a visit to the doctor, in which he learned that he was at high risk of lung cancer and should avoid smoking. Half the total number of participants were told that Chang had been wanting to quit smoking for several years but never succeeded. The other half read that Chang had been tempted to start smoking but had never done it. Participants who were familiar with the Chinese zodiac calendar thought that Chang would be more motivated to quit smoking than those who were unfamiliar. In contrast, both the participants that were familiar and unfamiliar with the Chinese zodiac calendar thought it very unlikely that Chang would be motivated to start smoking when he had not done so in the past. These results indicated that major temporal milestones selectively spur the adoption of behaviors that are goal-congruent, rather than the adoption of any new behaviors.
Finally, the researchers asked if one reason that people’s motivation to pursue goals increases at temporal landmarks can be that, at such points in time, they feel more psychologically separated from their past imperfect selves. To answer this question, they presented study participants with a fictional scenario in which half of the subjects had to imagine moving to a new city for the first time in 9 years (new-beginning condition). The other half had to imagine moving cities for the 9th consecutive time in 9 years (control condition). Then they had to rate, in various ways, the psychological distance that they felt between their present selves (after the move) and their imperfect past selves. Participants that had to imagine moving for the first time in 9 years felt more disconnected from their imperfect past selves than participants who imagined moving every year for the past 9 years. Participants in the new-beginning condition also said they would be more motivated to tackle personal goals than those in the control condition.
The combined results indicated that temporal landmarks that signal new beginnings cause people to engage in activities designed to facilitate goal initiation, and to predict higher motivation to pursue goals, both for themselves and for other people. This renewed impetus to tackle goals derives in part from the psychological disconnect between a person’s current self and his/her past inferior self that occurs at major temporal landmarks.
In light of this research, I have been pondering my failure to maintain certain exercise habits during the past year. Can I use the 2016 temporal landmark to get myself to exercise 3 times a week? Yeah—that’s it! I hereby choose to believe that the major culprit for my former noncompliance was my past inferior self. I am positive that that weak-willed malingerer is miles and miles apart from my much enhanced new 2016 personality upgrade. So, for the first time ever, I have written a long list of New Year resolutions. I have also orchestrated an extended discussion with my immediate family about why 2016 feels so much like a new start. You know, to lock in the change.
Here’s to new beginnings. Happy 2016!