new years resolutions

Overcoming "the Politician Effect": How to Make New Year’s Resolutions Stick

Here’s an interesting finding: one third of online donations are made in the month of December and 22% of all gifts occur in the last two days of the year. This end-of-the-year donation rush happens because of New Year’s resolutions to do social good, tax breaks, and most importantly, because people want to help others. Yet, when asked whether they’re only giving because it’s the end of the year, most people say they’ll continue donating throughout the year. Why don’t people follow through with their resolutions to keep giving to charity? And this isn’t just a phenomenon that relates to charity - people don’t follow through with their New Year’s resolution’s to exercise and a ton of other things. So, how can you help people to stick with things they say they want to do?

A common response is that you can’t get people to follow through with things: some people follow through, others don’t.  Those who don’t follow through with their promises are just unmotivated or hypocrites. 

Take education. Students often write to me asking to get involved with our research. They schedule to meet with me, express their enthusiasm, and tell me they want to learn how to build technologies that get people to be heathier, predict disease outbreaks, or predict and stop cyberbullying. But when a project director assigns them something to complete, some of these students suddenly disappear. They stop responding to emails, stop showing up to meetings, and seem like they aren’t interested. What flakes or hypocrites, right? Not necessarily.

Social psychological research on attitude-behavior consistency explains that people are more likely to follow through with things they say that are specific, rather than general. For example, in a study on organ donation, people were asked whether they think positively or negatively about organ donation and then given a form allowing them to register to donate their organs. Surprisingly, the people who said they supported it weren’t that much more likely to register to donate than those were not supportive. However, people were also asked more specifically whether they would be willing to donate. Compared to those who said they weren’t likely to donate, those who said they were willing to donate were much more likely to actually donate.

This “Politician Effect,” as I call it, explains how people can appear like they aren’t following through with their plans when it might be because the communication was too vague. It can explain why some students in the scenario above don’t follow through with their plans of being involved in our research projects. Although they said they were generally interested, they might not have said they were interested in completing a specific project.

The lesson is, asking people the right questions, and communicating with the right words, can sometimes make the difference between a person seeming like a hypocrite or a saint. It can also mean the difference between them following through with their resolutions in the New Year and beyond. While it’s true that sometimes people don’t follow through with things even when they’re clearly described, we find that overcoming the Politician Effect helps a lot more people to follow through with their plans. For other strategies we’ve found on how to get people to keep doing things, look here.

Whether you’re an organization looking to get donors beyond the end-of-year donation rush, a teacher or manager helping students or employees to follow through on their education, or a friend trying to help another friend stick with their New Year’s resolution to be healthier, think about the Politician Effect. You’ll be more likely to help people follow through with their goals if you help them plan goals that are specific and use precise words. As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—‘tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

From Houston to Hanukkah: The Psychological Benefits of New Experiences

Last week, after finishing a presentation at the National HIV Prevention Conference, I took a cross-country flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles (via Houston). After boarding the plane, I found my seat next to a middle-aged woman. To be courteous, I introduced myself to her. In a distinct Southern drawl, she told me her name was Laura and that she was flying home to Houston to spend Christmas with her family.

I nodded and began to arrange my carry-on items. I started a mental review of what had transpired at the conference: who I’d met, whether my presentation was successful, and what I had to do when I arrived home.

"Do you live in Houston?” Laura asked.

“No,” I said, welcoming the break in silence to learn about her life. I explained that I was returning from a meeting and was anxious to get home after a busy schedule of traveling the past few weeks.

“I understand,” she said. “I’m looking forward to the holidays to relax with my family. I planned to use this flight to do some Christmas shopping. Have you finished your Christmas shopping?”

 “Well, I’m Jewish. We celebrate Hanukkah,” I said. “So luckily, I’m already done with most of my shopping.”

“Oh,” she said. She opened her laptop, paused, and said, “That’s great. I know someone who’s Jewish.”

I laughed. “On behalf of our people, I hope he or she didn’t disappoint you,” I joked.     

Despite our apparent differences, we wound up talking throughout the flight—about her transition from an accountant to an event planner, my work as a behavioral scientist, and about life in Los Angeles vs. Houston. I realized that by the end of the two-hour flight we knew a lot about each other’s lives and beliefs. “You have to see the rodeo in the spring,” she said as we touched down in Houston. Before heading out, she handed me a piece of paper with her email address and phone number. “Come visit during March. My husband and I would love to show you a real Texas rodeo,” she said, with a wink and genuine warmth.

On the second leg of my trip, I thought a lot about Laura. Before meeting her, I would have thought we’d have little to talk about, no common ground. Her views and daily life were way out of alignment with my own, yet getting to know her turned out to be one of the highlights of my short trip.

Research has shown that we prefer to associate with people who think like we do. This tendency, known as confirmation bias, is the behavior of seeking or interpreting ideas in a way that favors personal beliefs. Finding ways to understand confirmation bias is a major feature of the work of Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind. Dr. Haidt focuses on the world of politics, but his underlying theme is that relationships shouldn’t simply be about trying to sway or inform people. Rather, every relationship offers the opportunity to learn a new perspective—something I always try to keep in mind.

Being open to a conversation with a stranger on a plane (or on your local street corner) won’t cure the world’s ills, but it’s a start at uniting people from different backgrounds and cultures, and it might lead to a new friendship—or even the opportunity to attend a rodeo.

Black Friday Discussion with Sean Young, PhD

1.  We are in the middle of the 2015 holiday season.  Are there findings in your research that help people stick to a New Year's Resolution?

Yes, there’s a lot of recent psychology research, from our own group and others, that studies why people don't keep doing things and what can be done to help people keep doing things they want to do, like New Years resolutions.  People plan to go the gym the first week of New Years and they're good at following through with that. Gyms are packed with people the first couple of weeks of January. Gyms are selling new memberships and getting people back who haven't been in a while. But what happens after a few weeks? The gym empties out. People stop exercising. They've already lost their follow-through and it’s not even February. 

How do you get people to keep their resolutions, whether it's going to the gym, keeping a healthy diet, or stopping procrastination? This is a lengthy topic so I'll focus on one piece of advice that we've learned through our research. It's called the science of social.

People are motivated by others. They want to conform to what others are doing, get excited when others are doing the same things they are, and try their best to fit in. This can lead to unwanted consequences like people bullying others, or people have polarized political views, but it can also lead to good things like helping people to keep healthy. We've had great success with the science of social through things like our HOPE online communities, which have gotten people to keep healthier behaviors. The HOPE communities harness the science of social by having peer role models guide and motivate people to change their behavior. How can people apply this research to keep their own New Years resolutions? They can join in-person or online communities with others who have similar resolutions. They can also make a pact with friends or neighbors and keep each other accountable for sticking to their resolutions. There are a lot of other ways that we've discovered that can be tailored to people's individual needs, but harnessing the science of social is an easy and surefire way to help everyone keep their resolutions longer.
2. Many parents probably have the same New Year's resolution - getting their kids to do their homework each day.  Are there steps or a process that you can delineate for this?

Psychology is something that's pretty unique to people. It’s based on things like people’s place of birth, cultural and religious background, current location, and their education and income. For that reason, I try to get to know as much as possible about the person or people I’m working with in order to craft a strategy that is uniquely fit for their psychology. That being said, there are still some really good general pieces of advice based on research that parents can use to get their kids to do their homework everyday.

One thing that can be very effective is to have a schedule. Kids want to have boundaries set for them. Creating a schedule for them is one way to do this. By putting aside a block of time each day that the child knows is “homework time,” parents can create a habit and get children expecting that they have to do their homework each day. That expectation is important as it sets the boundaries for kids. When kids have a different schedule each day, for example, soccer practice from 3-5pm one day but then the next day they have the ability to choose what they want to do from 3-5pm, they learn that they can choose to do what they want and don't learn to build a habit. If you want to build a habit around having kids do their homework, pick a time each day for them to do their homework, block off that time on a calendar or schedule that they'll see each day, and have some way of verifying and checking off that they did their homework that day as planned. Another thing that parents can do is to be role models for the kids and set a block of time for themselves to do work at the same time as their kids. For example, when kids seeing their parents reading books, they’ll be more likely to read, but if they see their parents watching television, then that’s what they’ll think they can get away with doing instead of homework. Finally, it's always important to reward kids for good behavior using positive reinforcement methods.

3. Most people struggle with finding a balance between enjoying holiday meals and controlling their weight.  Can you provide a strategy for how to get oneself to stick to a nutrition plan?

A week or two of holiday meals isn't usually the problem for people who want to eat healthier. That’s because people don’t usually eat healthily for a week or two and then continue eating healthily without trying. Similarly, a week or two of unhealthy eating doesn’t mean that people will automatically keep eating unhealthily. That's good and bad news. It’s good news if you already have a healthy routine, bad news if you don't. It means that finding that balance between healthy eating and holiday meals starts long before the holiday. It means that people need to create the right environment to get them to build a health lifestyle. One of the simplest and most concrete things that people can do to eat healthily is to stop buying unhealthy foods. Research studies have found that employees who sit near unhealthy foods (for example, a lot of workplaces have a vending machine area or a table where cakes and goodies sit) are more likely to be overweight than people who sit farther from this area. It's a pretty simple principle. Although people strive for willpower and motivation to eat healthier, the real secret is to stay away from things that are unhealthy. That will make it easier for people to stick to nutrition plans.
4. With January 1 around the corner, many companies will be adding new employees. Is there any advice you can provide to a small business CEO on how to onboard new employees?

Psychologists have done a lot of research on social norms, or on the ways that people expect they should act from watching others. When you start a new job, you don't know how you're supposed to act. You look to your coworkers and supervisors to learn how to behave. Take dress style. A lot of people start a new job with formal dress clothes like slacks and a tie. But after a few days, they might see that most people are wearing jeans. That reinforces a social norm that employees don't need to wear a tie and that jeans are okay. The interesting thing is, you don't need a large group of people to set that social norm. If only a handful of people are wearing jeans, it already gives new employees the idea that they can test out wearing jeans at the workplace, and if no one says there is a problem with this, then they’ll continue to wear jeans. This is an important principle for onboarding new employees. It means uniformity among employees is very important and that social and cultural norms in the workplace need to be established immediately.

5. Since we're discussing small business CEO's, how can we take your research and extrapolate principles for making products more engaging?  Are there specific steps or tips that you can share?

The social norms piece is also important in making new products more engaging. If product designers can let new users know that their product is one that the rest of the world thinks is engaging then they’ll be off to a great start in creating an engaging product. Take the onboarding example above. Imagine you’re creating a mobile app to onboard new employees. You’ll need to test it extensively beforehand to ensure that new users think that other users understand the platform, are excited to use it, and are actively engaged. You can use timestamps of recent activity to your advantage by letting new users see that people are frequently and actively engaged. But how do you get enough active users to start this process? We’ve given a step-by-step approach for how to build organic online communities as one example of how to do this. Features like these help to reinforce social norms and make products more engaging.
6. As a behavioral psychologist, looking at Black Friday and Cyber-Monday, what ideas can you share on how to incorporate psychological principles into marketing and sales?  What principles do you think are already being used in products that people might be buying now?
Some sites are doing a great job of using psychology and behavioral economics to increase product purchases. Take flash or lightning sales. These sales give the appearance of scarcity and make people think they have to purchase a product immediately to avoid losing the sale. This isn’t new to Cyber Monday sales though. Think about other product promotions that only sell to the first 50 customers. These are designed to get people into the storefront knowing that they’ll sign up for an email list or buy other products, even if these other products aren’t heavily discounted.

Another thing that companies appear to do is to heavily market a small number of big discount items and use that to lure people into thinking all of the items are heavily discounted. They might say that a pair of shoes is 50% off the retail value, but those shoes might normally be the same price, 50% of the retail value. When the company shows customers those shoes after showing them a pair of jeans that really are 25% off their normal value, then it makes customers think that they should scoop in and quickly buy the shoes that are 50% off, even though they are always 50% off. The moral is, Black Friday and Cyber Monday can bring some great deals, but you’ve got to do your homework and avoid the psychological tricks if you want to get those deals.
What I’ve discussed above are marketing tricks that people can use to get customers into their stores. But if you really want a sustainable business of engaged and dedicated customers, then it’s important to reward your customers and make them feel they are getting good deals even after they purchase. Having high quality products is obviously one way to do that. Building an engaged social community like we discussed above it another way to do that. Pairing positive marketing with good customer experiences is the best way to get customers engaged.