January 07, 2010

What's up with new year's resolutions?

I've never been one for new-year's resolutions. Making up reachable realistic goals is of course great, as long as they're reasonable, and setting up more short-term goals that lead up to something, breaking down the thing you want to accomplish, seems like a reasonable thing to do. But there's something about new-year's resolutions that I just can't get over. Thinking that the act of making a resolution, preferably in front of others or by getting it down in writing, somehow will affect the outcome of the resolution positively, seems like wishful thinking. In other words: Just because you resolve or promise to do something, does not automatically mean you are going to be successful at it. Yet, this is what the brain is really good at thinking, especially when you link it to some sort of special date or event, like the onset of a new calendar year.

Thankfully, this isn't what most people mean by making new-year's resolutions, but it's the thought that underlies the cultural phenomenon. Most of us set goals throughout the year, not necessarily assigning a special significance to an arbitrarily set date. Even though gyms are never as full as in January, I don't think most people mean very much by making new-year's resolutions, or even expect to be all that successful.

Then there's the argument of willpower. How intelligent is it to bunch together all your goals for the year in one bundle? Especially when so many of our typical resolutions involve resisting those instantly gratifying things we love so much. This is the subject of an article by Jonah Lehrer (in keeping with my previous post) called Blame It on the Brain: The Science Behind Failed Resolutions.

Willpower, like a bicep, can only exert itself so long before it gives out; it's an extremely limited mental resource.

Given its limitations, New Year's resolutions are exactly the wrong way to change our behavior. It makes no sense to try to quit smoking and lose weight at the same time, or to clean the apartment and give up wine in the same month. Instead, we should respect the feebleness of self-control, and spread our resolutions out over the entire year. Human routines are stubborn things, which helps explain why 88% of all resolutions end in failure, according to a 2007 survey of over 3,000 people conducted by the British psychologist Richard Wiseman. Bad habits are hard to break—and they're impossible to break if we try to break them all at once.

The brain area largely responsible for willpower, the prefrontal cortex, is located just behind the forehead. While this bit of tissue has greatly expanded during human evolution, it probably hasn't expanded enough. That's because the prefrontal cortex has many other things to worry about besides New Year's resolutions. For instance, scientists have discovered that this chunk of cortex is also in charge of keeping us focused, handling short-term memory and solving abstract problems. Asking it to lose weight is often asking it to do one thing too many.

In one experiment, led by Baba Shiv at Stanford University, several dozen undergraduates were divided into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.

Here's where the results get weird. The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. The reason, according to Prof. Shiv, is that those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain—they were a "cognitive load"—making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert. In other words, willpower is so weak, and the prefrontal cortex is so overtaxed, that all it takes is five extra bits of information before the brain starts to give in to temptation.

Swedish blog tags: ,
Technorati tags: , ,

1 comment:

  1. I also read of the cake-fruit experiment. It's not good news to those who would hope that reason can trump emotion. If only its consequences went no deeper than food choices.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.