How we fool ourselves out of keeping New Year’s resolutions

My resolution was to not make resolutions…

It’s week 2, 2016. Have you broken any of your New Year’s Resolutions yet, even little ones? Be honest.

As you’ll know, a resolution without a detailed plan and effort is otherwise known as a vain hope. Additionally, you’ll know if you’ve ever tried to lose weight, get fitter, save more, or change a habit of any kind, that change is really hard, so having hope as your only weapon is about as effective a strategy as attacking Mt Doom with a can of sliced peaches.

There’s loads of good, evidence-based material about on how to change habits, (and some old but still good advice on goal setting below) so what we want to focus on here is a particular mental quirk we have that can help or hinder us when it comes to change and, hopefully, help us keep one of those resolutions plans. Particularly, we use it to avoid difficult conversations with ourselves.

You may have come across it before. It’s called cognitive dissonance. You’ll recognize it in others and yourselves, and getting to grips with it can be illuminating and useful. We have Leon Festinger to thank for developing the concept, which goes like this.

How cognitive dissonance works

Festinger (1957) proposed that we pay attention to real or perceived conflicts between our attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. These conflicts cause us mental tension, which we are driven to reduce.

For example, I might claim to eat healthily, and yet regularly eat cream donuts. This discrepancy between my thoughts and actions would cause dissonance and discomfort in my thinking, which I would seek to reduce.

The level of discomfort is determined by how important the issue is to us, and how large the discrepancy is. Naturally, if the discrepancy is small or inconsequential, we ignore it and accept that we can at times act contrary to our beliefs without feeling like we’re being duplicitous or dishonest.

At other times, putting our inconsistencies side by side can be extremely confronting. What if you knew something about the awfulness of factory farming but ate their products anyway? What do you do?

The experiments

In Festinger’s original experiments, he asked people to do incredibly boring tasks, and then offered to pay them to tell the next candidate how interesting the tasks were. Those paid $1 rated the tasks as more fun and enjoyable than those paid $20.

But $1 isn’t enough money to pay you for lying, which created dissonance in those people. Somehow they had to overcome the tension, which they did by determining that the tasks were, genuinely, interesting and fun. Being offered $20 for a boring job is reason enough, so there was no dissonance.

Because we seek to keep our attitudes and behavior consistent, there are a few ways we can reduce dissonance.

Techniques for reducing dissonance

  1. We can shift one of the elements to remove the conflict, such as realigning an attitude to match our behavior. I can decide that I ‘generally’ eat healthily and acknowledge that treats are ‘normal’, so a few donuts are fine. This works more easily for attitudes and beliefs than for behaviors, which are notoriously hard to change. It’s harder to cut out donuts than it is to shift our attitude to them.
  2. We can look for new information that can override a conflict. Let’s say I drink a lot of beer, while at the same time knowing that it puts weight on and I’m already overweight. Then I discover, ta daaaa, that beer is actually good for me! Conflict resolved. I’ll still drink it (and put on weight) but I now have “evidence”. In some cases, contrived evidence is good enough.
  3. The last thing is to minimize the conflict by reducing its importance. If you work in an office, you may have heard that ‘sitting is the new smoking’ as long periods of staying sedentary, common for office workers, is bad for your health, and you want to be healthy. You can decide therefore that other areas of your life, such as walking to and from the train, can cancel out the costs of sitting, and the importance of the sitting issue just reduced.cognitive-dissonance

How we use it to suit ourselves

Cognitive dissonance can be a neat way of rationalizing our way out of almost anything, including New Year’s Resolutions. For example, maybe you’re feeling the tension between knowing you’re overweight and yet still gorging yourself helpless over the Christmas and New Year period? Then just reduce the importance. You were going to start that exercise plan in January anyway, weren’t you?

Struggling to reconcile your very low savings with your high credit card debt from blowing money over the break? Easy. Convince yourself that you’ve plenty of time to save for the future (reduce the importance) that you’re generally good with money but Christmas is one of those times you have to spend more (shifting an element) and, voila, conflict gone.

Proponents of the theory note how it commonly leads to all kinds of mental gymnastics to make sure we don’t actually change. For example, in his recent book ‘Black Box Thinking’, Matthew Syed devotes a large chunk of space fair amount of time to how healthcare professionals use it to avoid facing failure (and thus improving things), in contrast to pilots who have an immediate, robust and transparent process for dealing with error and implementing change.

So here’s the take home bit

We’re pretty adept at resolving dissonance, and it can work extremely well. Unfortunately, we’re often unaware we’re doing it, but we’re very good at seeing it in others. This is another reason to share goals and have consequences; other people know when we’re deceiving ourselves and can help keep us honest.

Sometimes it doesn’t work, and we just ignore it, even for items of significance. Feeling guilty is a good sign we might be fooling ourselves, and unpacking our thinking can help us to avoid the same traps in future.

Good luck with your plans.

What do you think?

Key words

Cognitive dissonance

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SMART goals

Here’s a quick review of crucial elements you need in order to help goals stick

Use SMART goals. This is an old but effective tool, which highlights five important elements of setting goals. There is a little variation in what each of the letter can stand for, but this will give you the idea.

  • S = Specific
  • M = Measurable
  • A = Accountable
  • R = Realistic
  • T = Timed

Specific means detailed, rather than vague. ‘Be able to run 5km’ is specific. ‘Get fit’ is vague. A good question to ask is: ‘what will achieving your goal allow you to do that you can’t do now?’

Measurable means that we’ll know when we’ve reached the goal. 5km is easily measurable. Run without getting puffed is harder to measure. Get fit is harder still!

Accountable. Make the goal public by sharing it with others, or visible by putting a progress chart on the fridge or Facebook. Also, consider a penalty that you know will be exacted by a trusted friend. For example, I will donate $1,000 to a cause/charity I disagree with if I do not achieve the goal. This can be strong incentive, but it must be carried out. And you must write it down!

Realistic. Good goals are within reach but out of grasp, meaning that you’ll need to stretch, but it feels as though you have some control over the outcome by putting in some effort. ‘Win an Olympic medal in the marathon’ might be unachievable. ‘Run 5km’ is more realistic, while still needing effort.

Timed means there is an end point. ‘By 31 August 2016’ is time-limited. And if your goal is  long-term, break it into smaller, timed, sub-goals.

So. We can now turn ‘get fit’ into ‘Run 5km by 31 August 2016 sharing progress and distances on Facebook for support’ or ‘swim 1km in under 20 minutes by 1 July 2016 or donate $250 per month to a charity I dislike until I succeed’.

Good luck!


About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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