Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Suspiciously Many New Year's Resolutions Remain Unbroken

This is the time of the year when many new year's resolutions have already been broken, but I wonder what makes so many of them remain unbroken. According to the FiveThirtyEight website (link), "nearly half" of the resolvers are apt to fail. Still, any success rate in the double digits I would view as really high.

There are 365 days in a year and many important decisions have to be made on some of them, but there is no natural and evident tendency for these decisions to be concentrated on 31st December. So if you want to lose weight (say), you take measures to do that rather than wait until the first day of the next year to do it. Because if the decision is important to you, it would be completely foolish to wait. Indeed, waiting would signal lack of commitment.

This means that the really important resolutions are made throughout the year, without regard for what day it is. It follows that the vast majority of New Year's resolutions are balderdash. Some of them are not, specifically, the number which is roughly  one 365th of the real resolutions made during a year. But this ought to be rather a small fraction of them.

So why might it be that a double-digit success rate is actually true of New Year resolutions? Maybe part of the reason it a kind of intertemporal substitution. Some resolutions can wait a little bit, and since there is somehow some symbolic value of making one for the start of a new year, there are more real resolutions made on New Year's Eve than one might otherwise expect.

Perhaps another part of the story is that many resolutions are hokum whose success is unverifiable, such as "enjoying life", "being a better person", or "getting closer to God", all fairly popular resolutions listed in the FiveThirtyEight post.

A third explanation may be the festive season. Late December contains Christmas, New Year's Eve, Hanukkah (usually), Kwanzaa, and of course Festivus. There are some others in addition. Say a person puts on two or three pounds during these weeks, a New Year's resolution to shed them immediately gains credibility, because shedding them at any other time of the year (i.e. before the holiday season) would have meant shedding them before they were put on.

Anyway, I hope everyone had a happy Festivus.

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