By Ben Cohen
Jan. 5, 2023
This is the week when people everywhere pursue what might be the world’s most popular strategy for maximizing success. This is also the week they begin to wonder: Why did I make that New Year’s resolution?
It turns out someone has spent many years answering that very question.
Few have devoted more time to the most widespread, least understood method of behavioral change than John C. Norcross, a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Scranton and one of the first scholars to research the annual ritual decades ago.
His message for skeptics is that New Year’s resolutions actually do work under the right circumstances. You might be convinced that you will abandon your plans by next week. But he has found that a surprisingly high percentage of people follow them for at least six months. Dr. Norcross says these goals are more likely to drive significant change when they are realistic, specific and oriented toward accomplishing something good instead of avoiding something bad.
New Year’s resolutions also happen to be useful for another reason: They provide an essential lesson about the nature of progress. It’s not instant. It’s incremental. Even major breakthroughs are made possible by modest gains.
So millions of people wake up on Jan. 1 every year and make a noble vow to eat better, drink less, run more, meditate, write a novel, learn the piano, master the art of French cooking or do something else that would have sounded totally nuts on Dec. 31.
Those decisions and the deeply human desire for self-improvement fascinate Dr. Norcross, who says he studies New Year’s resolutions because of what they represent.
“I’m interested in how people change on their own,” he said.
And never do so many people change so much about their behavior than right now.
Dr. Norcross’s earliest work on New Year’s resolutions began in late December 1985, when he asked a local Pennsylvania television station to run a banner encouraging people to call his team for a study on New Year’s resolutions. Soon they had 200 volunteers who agreed to be contacted for subsequent interviews, and they could monitor their progress navigating similar predicaments at the same time.
When the researchers predicted how many of them would stick to their resolutions after six months, their expectations ranged from 10% to 25%. The real number turned out to be 40%.
Even though the majority of people still failed, Dr. Norcross was stunned by the success rate. The New Year’s resolution-industrial complex was not just a ploy to sell gym memberships.
After that first paper was published in 1989 and showed resolutions were more powerful than he’d suspected, he ran another experiment starting in 1995 to confirm his own results.
This time, instead of studying a potentially biased sample of people willing to volunteer for a study, his undergraduate assistants flipped through Scranton, Pa., phone books and randomly cold-called strangers in the week after Christmas. By the new year, they had interviewed 159 people with resolutions and 123 with comparable motivations and goals but no formal resolutions, and they followed them for the next six months. Once again, more than 40% of those with resolutions stuck with them, but only 4% of those without resolutions achieved the behavioral changes they had in mind.
Still, most New Year’s resolutions are meant to be temporary, and the 40% who were successful after six months in Dr. Norcross’s first study fell to 19% after two years. Then again, that’s one in five people who managed to change something about themselves because of the calendar. Failure is a matter of perspective.
Even those responsible for much of what we know about New Year’s resolutions admit they would like to know a lot more, in part because the entire body of academic literature is limited to several thousand people. There have been more people in a single Peloton class.
“I was definitely surprised to find so little research,” said Blake Hallinan, a senior lecturer in communications at Hebrew University, and the lead author of a 2021 paper about cultural differences in New Year’s resolutions based on more than 160,000 tweets.
Another recent study came from Per Carlbring, a professor of clinical psychology at Stockholm University, who noticed that he believed in New Year’s resolutions but his friends didn’t. He decided to find out who was right. “I wanted to see if they were as bad as their reputation,” he said.
After tracking more than 1,000 people over the course of 2017, Dr. Carlbring and his collaborators discovered something more practical: How New Year’s resolutions were framed helped determine how effective they were.
For example, if you want to spend less time on your phone, you have a better chance if you commit to reading a book than if you delete Instagram, as starting a new activity is stickier than quitting an old one. Soon it no longer feels like a chore. It becomes a habit.
We all know how the machines in our pockets distract us. What’s less known is how they can help us focus. It’s a phenomenon that Quentin Zervaas observes every year. A software developer based in Australia, he built an app called Streaks, a to-do list that functions a bit like a game. When users assign themselves daily tasks, they suddenly feel an urge to complete them: They want to extend their streaks.
The app’s sales numbers spike in late December and early January, as people look for ways to hold themselves accountable to their resolutions, and Streaks climbed back into Apple‘s top-10 paid downloads this week.
“Every now and then,” said Mr. Zervaas, “you get this reminder that it’s actually making a meaningful difference in day-to-day lives.”
But it’s oddly contrarian to recognize the value of New Year’s resolutions, and Dr. Norcross’s research is no less counterintuitive today. That’s why someone who says he’s not particularly interested in this subject can’t stop thinking about it.
In fact, if he wants to see how people change on their own, Dr. Norcross can simply look in the mirror: He’s still doing something that started as a New Year’s resolution. It was specific. It was realistic. And it worked.
He now flosses every day.
Write to Ben Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org
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