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Why It's Not Too Late To Make A New Year's Resolution

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This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. We're a couple of weeks into the new year and perhaps you've already fallen behind on your resolutions to floss every day, eat healthy, exercise. Today, we're going to help you get back on track. We'll talk about the psychology of resolutions, and Dan Pink will join me to offer tips to help you stick to your goals.

DAN PINK: When we make New Year's resolutions, we often focus on what to do and how to do it. But a fascinating study shows that the secret to success might be why we do something in the first place.

VEDANTAM: Before we get to that, though, I want to take a few minutes to talk about something happening on my own staff.

MAX NESTERAK, BYLINE: It's 2016, and I have not smoked for two minutes.

VEDANTAM: This is Max Nesterak. He's been working at HIDDEN BRAIN for the last couple of months. His resolution was to quit smoking. I decided I wanted to help. I told Max to do three things based on findings from social science research. We'll come back to one of them later in this episode, and we'll have another episode in a few months to discuss how and whether the interventions worked. Max has been recording an audio diary since the day he quit.

NESTERAK: Today is day one. I've noticed that time goes really slow when you're quitting smoking. Day one of quitting smoking continued. It's like this mental obsession, so you're kind of like, should I have a granola bar? No, I want to have a cigarette. Should I go for a walk? No, I want to have a cigarette. I'm really looking forward to going to bed. And it's like 2 p.m. You're on a trolley. And you're really warm, and you're wearing your winter coat and scarf and hat. When you're having a craving, you just - you don't think that you're ever going to feel differently or have felt differently. It's super crowded, and it's super hot in this trolley. And that's what it feels like in your brain. You have to love the burn, almost. You know what I mean? Like, it sucks, it hurts, and you just kind of lean into it. And you're like, yeah, this is what quitting feels like. And - yeah, so I'm loving the burn right now. (Expletive, expletive). OK, it's like three minutes away from being 48 hours - so the end of day two. It's day three, and I still haven't smoked. There were some dark moments today. OK, it's day five, and I just got back from a run. It's day eight, which means I made it an entire week, which feels like such an accomplishment. So it's day 12, and when I woke up this morning, I was just feeling so grateful that, you know, the first thing - I don't have to go have a cigarette.

VEDANTAM: HIDDEN BRAIN's news assistant, Max Nesterak.


VEDANTAM: We're going to begin today by exploring why we make resolutions in the first place. That's important in understanding why we so often fail to stick to them, and how we can do better. If you listen to public radio, you know that I often sit down with the hosts of the daily news programs to talk about interesting social science research. My recent conversation with Audie Cornish of All Things Considered started with a question.


AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: Why do we make New Year's resolutions, especially if we know we're just going to break them? Hear with some insight on this subject is NPR's social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam. And Shankar, you also are going to offer some advice - right? - on how to make these goals more achievable.

VEDANTAM: I'm going to try, Audie.

CORNISH: OK, let's get this out of the way. First of all, why do we bother with New Year's resolutions? What's going on in our heads?

VEDANTAM: It's actually a great question, and I don't think we actually stop to ask that question very often. A few social science researchers recently did - Hengchen Die, Katherine Milkman and Jason Riis at the Wharton school at the University of Pennsylvania. They asked this question. Why do we make resolutions at the start of a new year? And they think New Year's resolutions are really a form of what they call mental accounting. They find that Google searches for the word diet go up dramatically at the start of a new year. But what's interesting is that it's not just at the start of a new year. Birthdays, the start of a new month, the start of a new week, federal holidays - all of these serve as what the researchers call temporal landmarks.

CORNISH: Temporal landmarks, OK - so it's our own way of marking sort of who we are, who we were and the beautiful butterfly we hope to emerge, right, when we make all of these changes.

VEDANTAM: Exactly, and now, you know, many religions actually have explicit language describing the very same thing. So Christians, for example, say someone is born again, and this squares very well with the psychological truth about human beings, Audie. Previous research by Anne Wilson and Michael Ross at the University of Waterloo show people tend to look down on their past selves compared to who they are now. So they say, I used to be a chump, but now I'm a champ. So resolutions really are a way to mark this transition between the old, inferior version of ourselves, and the new and improved Audie Cornish 2.0.

CORNISH: Well, what does this tell us about why the resolutions fail, then, right? We have the energy. We have the gumption. What happens?

VEDANTAM: Well, I mean, if we are biased to imagine that our present selves are superior to our past selves, this actually sets us up for failure, Audie. So if I think to myself that the new and improved Shankar will exercise everyday and exercise self-control but I'm really the same person that I used to be, my resolutions are likely to fail.

CORNISH: You're basically saying this is what makes it hard to follow through, who we want to be versus who we kind of know we are.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. And when it comes to sort of addressing these problems, I think the first thing to say is that awareness of the bias is actually helpful. But we can also take advantage of our tendency to see these temporal landmarks as fresh starts. So for example, one thing you can do is make changes that then work automatically. So if you boost automatic deductions from your paycheck to a retirement account, for example, you can make that change once on January 2, and it's going to last the rest of the year without you having to do anything about it. The second thing you can do is take advantage of smaller temporal landmarks, like a new month or a birthday. You can take advantage of that bias to basically say when you hit February 1, you can now say the January version of myself is the inferior version. I have a chance now to reinvent myself in February.

CORNISH: All right, so you know a lot about this. Does this mean that you have a seemingly...

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

CORNISH: ...Achievable resolution for 2016 that you're willing to share?

VEDANTAM: Well, I have a resolution. I'm not sure how achievable it is, Audie. And I feel this resolution very keenly right now because like millions of other people, my sports team has done abysmally this past season.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: And my resolution for 2016 is to care less about football than I did in 2015.

CORNISH: Some would say that version of you is the superior version, Shankar. You should know that.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) And it's probably not achievable.


VEDANTAM: OK, so in the couple of weeks since I talked to Audie, I have already failed in my resolution because I have continued to follow my failing football team with the obsession that I had in 2015. So we're going to take a short break, and when we come back, Dan Pink is going to help me, and we are going to help you figure out ways to stick to your resolutions. Stay with us.

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VEDANTAM: Thanks for listening to HIDDEN BRAIN. If you like us, you might want to check out the How To Do Everything podcast. The hosts, Mike and Ian, will help you learn how to find giant insects and welcome extraterrestrials. Find How To Do Everything at and on the NPR One app.


VEDANTAM: Back now for another round of Stopwatch Science, I'm Shankar Vedantam. I'm joined as always by Daniel Pink. He's the author of several books on human behavior, but on our show, his title is senior Stopwatch Science correspondent. Hi, Dan.

PINK: Hey, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: On Stopwatch Science, Dan and I give one another 60 seconds to summarize interesting social science research. As we approach the 60-second mark, our producers, Kara and Maggie, will bring the music up to drown us out, just like they do at the Oscars. Our topic today is how to stick to your resolutions. I have to ask you, Dan, are you good at sticking to your resolutions?

PINK: I am resolute in general but not that good at resolutions, in particular. I have a lot of resolve, let's put it that way.

VEDANTAM: Wait, so you mean that you are...

PINK: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: ...A resolute person who doesn't stick to your resolutions?

PINK: I am theoretically as resolute as a human being can be.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) As we know, theory is the only thing that actually matters on Stopwatch Science.

PINK: Absolutely right.

VEDANTAM: All right, Dan and I are going to help you stick to your failing or flagging New Year's resolutions. Have you found your studies, Dan?

PINK: I have, and this first one earned its place on Stopwatch Science, Shankar, because it's the only academic paper I've ever read that cites both William James and LeBron James.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) All right, can't wait to hear this. Dan, if you're ready, your first 60 seconds starts now.

PINK: Now, this first study was led by Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan and shows that we can boost our performance by choosing the right pronoun. Now, this research examined self-talk. That's what it's called when we talk to ourselves silently. Across several experiments, the researchers tested if changing the way we talk to ourselves could help us in nerve-wracking situations like giving a speech. Now, for this experiment, half the participants used first-person pronouns in their self-talk, saying things like, why do I feel this way? The other participants used non-first-person language, saying to themselves, why do you feel this way or, if I were a participant, what are the underlying causes and reasons for Dan's feelings? Over and over, non-first-person self-talk proved more effective in reducing anxiety and helping people see stressful situations as challenges rather than threats. Unlike the words I and me, second-person pronouns - and even talking about yourself in the third person, like Lebron sometimes does - gives us the distance to see situations more objectively and to prepare with greater confidence.

VEDANTAM: I love that study, Dan. In some ways, you know, it meshes with all the work that's been done on mindfulness that basically says, when you can observe yourself, you actually have some distance and control over your perceptions and behaviors.

PINK: That's precisely what it is. It's something called self-distancing. And actually, the little tricks we can use in our own lives to self distance is something as simple as switching from first person to second person or even third person. So now, Shankar, I'm going to give you a second-person instruction. You have 60 seconds to give us your study.

VEDANTAM: All right, let me start by saying that even though Shankar Vedantam is experiencing great anxiety about wrapping up this summary in 60 seconds, he is going to do his best to come in on time. All right, Lizzy Pope, Andrew Hanks, David Just and Brian Wansink at Cornell University recently analyzed why New Year's resolutions fail when it comes to healthy eating. They find that people buy more unhealthy food during the holidays, in the window between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It's not surprising - we're celebrating. We're having lots of parties. After that, there's good news and there's bad news. On the positive side, after New Year's Day, people by significantly more healthy food. That makes sense. They've made resolutions to eat healthy. They're buying more carrots and celery. The bad news is after New Year's Day, people continue to buy roughly the same volume of unhealthy food that they were buying in the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas window. In other words, healthy food was not replacing unhealthy food. It was merely being added to unhealthy food. So if you find that your New Year weight-loss plan is not working, check your grocery bills to see if you're still buying soda, chips and candy.

PINK: Fascinating - so basically, what it means is people are just buying more food overall.

VEDANTAM: Exactly.

PINK: So to me, the ultimate take-away from this is invest in grocery store chains...

VEDANTAM: Oh dear.

PINK: ...Because their revenues are going up. But beyond that, is there something that we can do in our own lives to adjust for this?

VEDANTAM: I think the thing to do actually is to be aware that it's not just enough to adopt healthy behaviors when you're making a lifestyle change. It's just as important to leave unhealthy behaviors behind. All right, Dan, I'm hoping that you will leave your unhealthy behavior of exceeding your 60 seconds behind you in this next segment, which starts right now.

PINK: When we make New Year's resolutions, we often focus on what to do and how to do it. But a fascinating study of West Point graduates shows that the secret to success might be why we do something in the first place. A group of scholars led by Yale's Amy Wrzesniewski and Swarthmore's Barry Schwartz studied nine years' worth of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy. Some of these cadets entered the academy with what the researchers called internal motives. For example, they might have come to West Point mostly because they wanted to serve their country. Others had largely instrumental motives - they wanted free tuition or a resume boost. And many, of course, had a mix of those two motives. So who ended up as the most successful officers? Turns out that the people with strongly internal motives did very well. But did adding instrumental motives on top of those intrinsic drives improve performance even more? Nope - it actually made it worse. Any time instrumental motives were in the picture, performance actually declined. Sometimes, we look at high achievers and assume they pursued success. But that confuses motives with consequences. The people who achieve the most on New Year's or any other day, it seems, are those who do things for the right reason.

VEDANTAM: That is really interesting, Dan. I'm wondering if this is happening partly because when people face setbacks, it's the people who have intrinsic motivations who are better able to overcome those setbacks because they sort of see them as temporary. If I go to West Point because I want something on my resume, and then I find that West Point is really, really hard, I start to think, is it really worth all this trouble to get this on my resume?

PINK: I think that's actually a very, very good point. It would be interesting to see a test similar to this in a less demanding institution than West Point because that's, as we know from other kinds of research, is really, really tough to get through. So you really have to want it for deep-down reasons. So speaking of deep-down reasons, your 60 seconds starts right now.

VEDANTAM: All right, economists have long been interested in what they call precommitment strategies. That's basically the idea that if you want to stick to doing something, you commit yourself to facing unpleasant consequences if you fail. Dean Karlan is an economist at Yale. He's done lots of work looking at precommitment devices to help people reach their goals. In one study he conducted some years ago, Dan, smokers trying to quit put money into a savings account. If they successfully stayed off cigarettes, they got their money back. But if they started smoking again, the bank took the money and donated it to a charitable cause. Karlan found that smokers were slightly more likely to stick to their resolution if they made this kind of commitment. He's actually taken this idea and run with it. He's helped found a group called stickK - S, T, I, C, K, K. This is an online site that helps you make this kind of precommitment. One interesting twist is that you can actually have your money donated to an organization that you detest. So if you're a Republican trying to quit smoking, you can stash money away and say that if you return to smoking, all the money's going to go to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. If you're a Democrat trying to quit, you can say the money's going to go to Donald Trump.

PINK: Fascinating, so we could possibly even use this on this show, so maybe you could commit to - if you go over your time, you just give money to me.

VEDANTAM: I think I'm going to be willing to do that, Dan, only if you promise that going forward you will always speak about yourself in the third person.

PINK: So, Dan Pink would love that kind of arrangement.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

PINK: He really would.

VEDANTAM: All right, there you have it. Talk about your resolutions in the third person, cut out all the unhealthy food you've been buying since Thanksgiving, focus on your internal motives and goals, and make a precommitment to donate money to a cause you detest because it can help you save your life. Dan Pink, thank you for joining me on Stopwatch Science.

PINK: Dan Pink really enjoyed it.


VEDANTAM: We spend lots of time on HIDDEN BRAIN telling you what researchers have found. Today, we're going to go the extra step of actually trying to apply what they have learned. Max Nesterak joined our team right after Thanksgiving. After a couple of weeks, we noticed he would get up regularly and leave the building. He was going outside to smoke. Max didn't bring up his smoking habit during his job interview. To be clear, NPR does not discriminate against smokers, but, Max felt it would not reflect well on him to reveal that he smoked a pack a day. When we were brainstorming this episode, Max talked about how hard it was to quit. He's tried it many times. He said he wanted to try quitting again on January 1. We decided to help. I gave Max three assignments based on findings from social science research. We'll follow what happens over a few months and tell you how Max faired with his assignments and whether they helped him stick to his resolution. The first assignment was something he had to do before he quit. In late December, I asked Max to record a public service announcement on why young people should never start smoking. Here's Max.


NESTERAK: When I was 18, my dad's aunt, my great aunt Joe (ph), died of a heart attack. She was 74 years old. The paramedics found her at her kitchen table in her home in Chardon, Ohio, slumped over in front of her morning coffee, her ashtray and her inhaler. For as long as I knew Aunt Joe, she was a smoker. She smoked Doral Lights, those kinds that only old ladies seemed to smoke. But I used to sneak them out of her purse when I started smoking at 14. My parents and aunts and uncles used to tell us kids when we were little to ask Aunt Joe to quit. They thought kids might be more persuasive than they were. I remember one time after nudging, Aunt Joe, you shouldn't smoke, she replied, I know, honey. But when I think about quitting, I get stressed. And when I get stressed, I smoke more. Having smoked more than 10 years myself, I know how she felt. But smoking clearly cut her life short. It's a fact that, well, I'm ashamed to admit, hasn't discouraged my own smoking. The thing is, death is too abstract, lung cancer too far off, and the risk of heart attacks too uncertain. I'm sure Aunt Joe knew, like I do, the risks, that smoking kills the little cilia that clean the air for your lungs, that it cuts off the blood flow to your gums, causing your teeth to rot from the inside, that it causes plaque to build up in your arteries, leading to stroke and heart attack. A doctor once told me on his smoke break that I just needed to quit before I was 35, and my body could still recover. I'm not sure he's right. I can already hear my laughs sometimes turn into a cough like Aunt Joe's did. But by his measure, I probably have another 10 good years of smoking in front of me. I'm only 25. But if you're 14 and thinking about having your first cigarette, I'm quitting now, and here's why. Smoking really sucks, not just when you're 60 or 70 or 80 if you're lucky, it sucks when you're 16, when you're 20, when you're 25. Today, I can't run as fast or as far as a non-smoker. I spend more money on cigarettes than I'd like to think about. But the worst of it are the cravings that come like clockwork, even when I'm sleeping. If you don't smoke, here's what you should know. When you're a smoker, life is lived around cigarettes. You'll be laughing with friends at dinner or totally engrossed in a good book, and something will tug at you. And as much as you want to stay in this moment, you'll be thinking about a cigarette.

NESTERAK: So you'll get up, walk outside and light up. And it will feel really good. But you'll wish you were back inside, and you'll be so tired of trading off these moments for a smoke. If you don't smoke, you should know that smoking makes a prison out of perfectly normal situations. Long flights, concerts, class, anything that lasts longer than a couple of hours - these are your enemy as a smoker. And any time you go on a date or to a job interview or to your grandparents house, you'll be accompanied by a pang of worry. You'll wash your hands and pull your shirt to your nose and hope they can't smell smoke. Finally, if you don't smoke, you should know how hard it is to quit - how much you'll want to and fail to give it up. I'm going to quit on January 1, and to be honest, I'm sad about losing something that's been part of my life for so long. And in the coming weeks without a cigarette, I know the cravings will find a way to twist my reasons for quitting into reasons why I can still smoke. This is the most baffling part of smoking - the way it hijacks your best intentions. I've heard that quitting is the hardest thing a smoker ever does, but also that whatever pain is meted out in the coming weeks will be totally worth because to be a non-smoker means being free to go anywhere and do anything unencumbered. It means being able to be fully present in each moment if I choose. And so the next time I get on a long flight or go out to dinner with friends or see a movie, I won't be plotting my next cigarette.

VEDANTAM: Have you ever quit something successfully - smoking, biting your nails, gambling, a bad relationship? Max wants your advice, and we want your stories. Leave your quitting success stories at (661) 772-7246. If you want to leave Max a message of advice or encouragement, you can do that as well. Once again, the number is (661) 77-BRAIN. The HIDDEN BRAIN podcast is produced by Kara McGuirk-Alison and Maggie Penman. Our news assistant is Max Nesterak. For more HIDDEN BRAIN, find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and on your local public radio station. Check out our newsletter to see what I'm reading this week. Send an email to with the word subscribe in the subject line. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

MAGGIE PENMAN, BYLINE: Hi, you guys. I'm Maggie Penman.


PENMAN: We're the producers of the HIDDEN BRAIN podcast.

MCGUIRK-ALISON: We don't know about you guys, but both of us made resolutions to exercise more in 2016.

PENMAN: We're actually going to spin class tomorrow, Kara - don't forget.

MCGUIRK-ALISON: Yay (ph). And if that's your resolution too, you are not alone. And our friends at the WNYC podcast Only Human want to help.

PENMAN: Only Human is partnering with behavioral economist and best-selling author Daniel Ariely on an exciting new project called stick to it. Basically, Ariely and his colleagues are running a study about how to get people to exercise more, and you can participate by downloading a simple app...

MCGUIRK-ALISON: ...Which means you can work on meeting your goals and help out with some pretty cool research about human behavior.

PENMAN: To learn more and to sign up for the study, go to And while you're there, go ahead and check out the show. It's an awesome podcast about a lot of the same things we cover here.

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