Why Is It…?

“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university professor over the last 15 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].

Q: Why is it… that every year, people feel the need to make New Year’s resolutions, only to break them again?

A: Each year, around this time, we find numerous articles, programs, and advertisements targeting the topic of New Year’s resolutions. And while the media is saturated with discussions on this issue, I will attempt to address it from a social psychological perspective.

New Year’s resolutions can be explored by examining the principles of temporal comparisons and how we perceive/define our self-concepts. January 1st marks the beginning of a new year, and as such, many people target this date as the transition from old patterns to a new approach to living. Whether we are talking about breaking a bad habit (smoking) or committing to a healthier lifestyle (exercise, losing weight, etc.), January 1st often represents an archetypal “deadline” for change.

In an earlier column on career choices (see “Why Is It…?” July 11, 2008) I introduced three dimensions of our self concept that may govern the choices we make (the actual, ought, and ideal selves). The actual self is who we are at the present time. The ought self is who we believe we should be out of some sense of obligation or duty, while the ideal self is who/how we would ultimately like to be. New Year’s resolutions are typically made when our actual self falls short when compared to our ideal or ought selves. Perhaps we would ideally like to be non-smokers, thinner, spend more time with our families, etc. Or, perhaps we feel guilty about our current lifestyle choices and believe we ought to change. Either way, inclinations to change ourselves for the better are a natural and welcome part of human nature.

However, our ultimate success or failure in adhering to our New Year’s resolutions often stems from whether our oughts and ideals have been self-defined as personal goals, or have been driven by the imposed expectations of others. If the change we seek is sincerely what “we” desire – we are more likely to stick to our commitments. However, in cases where we promise change as a response to social pressure from others (either real or perceived), we are far less likely to succeed in the long run. Therefore, while efforts toward self-improvement are always commendable, realistically, successful change is more likely when it is what we personally desire for ourselves.

Another factor that relates to our resolutions for change involves the topic of temporal comparisons. Temporal comparisons have to do with how we view ourselves across different periods of time (temporal = time). We may compare how we are now to how we were in the past, or compare how we are now to how we would like to be at some point in the future. This very common, although frequently unconscious, personal accounting often impacts our self-esteem in positive or negative ways. Using weight as an example, if we now weigh 50 pounds less than we did a year ago – we will feel better about ourselves. However, if we have gained 50 pounds in the last year, our self-esteem will plummet. New Year’s resolutions represent our motivation and desire to improve our temporal comparisons. We tend to project an “ideal” image of self into some distant point in the future (the year ahead) in the hopes that future temporal comparisons will result in positive outcomes.

Due to the cultural stereotype (as evidenced by pervasive media advertisements and social pressure from family and friends), many people target New Year’s Day as the “point of no return,” and the emphasis on this single date can add undue pressure, anxiety, and a sense of unyielding restriction to our lives. It can set up a recipe for irritability and failure in cases where the desire for change has been expected/imposed by someone other than our selves. If it is our sincere wish to embark on the journey to personal change, New Year’s Day will be met with eager enthusiasm. However, if we feel hesitant or find ourselves dreading the onset of January 1st, perhaps we are committing to resolutions for the wrong reasons (or the wrong people).

In essence, there is really nothing magical about January 1st in terms of a deadline for personal growth and improvement – as one day is just as good as the next. So if change is what you really want – remember – there is no time like the present. As the saying goes…don’t put off until tomorrow that which you can accomplish today!