Gordon Smith

Set a New Year Resolution? Science Believes You’ll Fail

A new year, new you? According to the minds of science, you’ve already failed before you’ve begun. Welcome to the proven “false hope syndrome.” Welcome to 2017.


The big moment has arrived. This blue marble has managed to make a full orbit of the Sun, albeit a second behind schedule, and we as a species have somehow not driven ourselves extinct. If you’re like most adults, you’ll probably be making a vow to better yourself in the new year, making a resolution you swear to commit to. If you’re like 25% of most adults, that resolution will then probably be put to bed by the end of January’s first week.

In fact, if you really do want to evolve into your superior self, you can expect to make quite a few trial runs. Typically, it takes someone to make five or six attempts before succeeding in fulfilling their resolution for a full six months. The odds are stacked against you: only 10% of all self-change resolutions are kept.

Psychologically speaking, the recycling of new year’s resolutions—something that makes up almost 60% of all resolutions—flies in the face of notions greatly accepted in the research community. In principle, behavior ultimately “extinguishes” if it is not followed by at least the occasional reward.

So spooked by such flagrant flouting of the rules of psychology, researchers at Harvard wrote that the practice of reusing resolutions could “represent a threat to the basic laws of learning.” As always, science can explain away our brain-based bamboozles and a person’s interpretation of failure can play a large role in finding the determination to go for round two.

It’s all a part of a “cycle of failure, interpretation, and renewed effort” forming what is known as “the false hope syndrome.” It begins with the undertaking of a difficult, or indeed impossible, task of self-improvement. In particular, attempts to be free of behaviors that are undesirable, but intrinsically rewarding, such as overeating, gambling, smoking, and alcohol or drug use, are common resolutions, but are rarely successful.

Though there may be some initial success, ultimately the resolution will end in failure. This, in turn, leads a person to believe they can achieve success by way of a few adjustments. Failing that, a person will accept the goal as difficult but believe that the rewards of their success make the attempts worthwhile. By this point, next year’s resolutions have been set and another attempt is made, propelled by memories of their previous initial success and an expectation for the future.

True to its cyclical nature, the three stages can repeat indefinitely, until success is achieved. The repetitive failure is not without its damages, either; the failure to change lowers the self-esteem of the resolver, but that lowering does little to affect future plans to try again.

We as a species are biologically not made to improve ourselves … Goals that have not been met after multiple attempts should be abandoned, else those unrealistic objectives can play a role in depression.

Despite initial success in self-improvement behavior changes, the inevitable failure is brought about by four factors coordinated with an unrealistic expectation about self-change: amount, speed, ease, and the effects the change have on life’s other aspects.

Often, a person will believe they can change more than is feasible (such as how much weight can be realistically lost), causing people to reject more modest and achievable goals. If that doesn’t break your spirit, you’re likely to predict that your self-change will occur more quickly and more easily than actually possible, thus making the process feel much more difficult and much more time-consuming.

If by some miracle you do achieve your goals, you’re likely to be disappointed by the result. Often, people believe that making a change will improve their lives more than what is reasonable to expect. Our researchers come back to the body buffing example, noting that some people believe that not only will dieting mean a loss in weight, but that will, in turn, lead to a job promotion or a romantic partner. The lemon detox is not typically known for its matchmaking effects.

Better still, those who resolved to exercise more reported feeling taller than they did before chasing their buns of steel. Yes, really.

Failure doesn’t necessarily mean that you are weak or unwilling to change by any means. It probably does, yes, but some researchers believe that human beings have a limited amount of energy at their disposal for self-regulation. As such, the failure to attain self-change is because of energy depletion, with that depletion worsened by stress.

We as a species are biologically not made to improve ourselves. Alternatively, this serves as a further drive for resolution makers to set realistic, achievable goals with realistic, achievable outcomes. Goals that have not been met after multiple attempts should be abandoned, else those unrealistic objectives can play a role in depression.

Of course, it is called the false hope model, not the “setting real goals” model. The role of interpretation in understanding failure leads to a person shifting the blame away from the inherently unrealistic nature of their resolution, allowing the re-commitment to the very same goal.

Once more, we as a species are damned by our very nature. With that cheery, optimistic outlook, may your new year’s resolutions be as attainable as they are non-impactful.

Remember: a gym membership may seem like an all areas pass to higher living, but the walk of shame come cancellation day more than zeroes out any net positive gain to your self-esteem.




Gordon Smith

Journalist by day, cunning linguist by night. A passion for politics, hypnotically involved in human rights. An Australian born with a Japanese tongue, hoping to hold the bigwigs in government to account.

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