Struggling to stick to your New Year’s resolution? Take comfort in scientists’ assertion that willpower has very little to do with a person’s character and much more to do with environmental factors.
Three weeks into January and already your New Year’s resolutions seem like a distant memory? Don’t beat yourself up about not sticking it out.
Behavioural Science Professor Nick Chater notes that the environment is a far bigger factor in whether people stick to their diet or exercise regime, and that those suffering from ‘fundamental attribution error’ believe that the success of their New Year’s resolution depends on their willpower.
“It can’t be that some people who lead very effective and well organised lives are just endowed with vastly more willpower than others,” says Professor Chater. “There is no independent evidence for this. Conditions and the environment have more of an effect than we think they do. The ‘fundamental attribution error’ sees people consistently overweigh people’s character as the determining factor.”
“We have to accept that external factors are very important. The environment we live in is nudging us one way or another, to buy or not to, to drink or not to, depending on what signals are present in the environment.”
Professor Chater conducted an experiment with students, giving them the choice between a piece of fruit or chocolate – one group were given a long number to remember, the other a simple, short number.
Though the results were mixed, there is evidence to back up the hypothesis that more people with the short number would choose fruit over chocolate.
“There is quite a lot of experimental work on how our willpower is affected by the amount by which our memory is taken up by other things,” says Professor Chater. “Willpower seems to require paying attention. On a large number of people, you really can make them have less willpower by distracting them with tricky mental tasks.”
“If you are exerting a lot of willpower in one dimension of your life, like dieting vigorously, then other areas of your life will tend to become slacker, so your willpower is a finite source.”
Ed Gardiner of the Behavioural Design Lab believes sticking to a New Year’s resolution involves changing your own environment.
“We think our actions are simply the result of our own intentions, but actually they are influenced by many, many environmental factors,” says Gardiner. “What are those crucial factors that have the most powerful influence on our behaviour? Once you understand that then you can start to manipulate those factors.”
Habits form through linking to a particular environmental cue – if you want to get fitter, pick a gym that’s on your way home from work. Want to drink less? Don’t have a bottle of wine waiting in your fridge.
“We can we can try to shape our interaction with the environment to make it as friendly as possible, to give ourselves the nudges we want to have, by trying to make sure you settle on a lifestyle and pattern of behaviour that puts you in a position to make the decisions you want to make,” says Professor Chater.
How are your New Year’s resolutions going? Still standing strong or long-forgotten? Let us know!