Why most New Year's resolutions fail

About half of adults begin every year with some form of resolution. But why do they give up so easily?

by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
Last Updated: 23 Feb 2015

Many of us start each year intending to lose weight,  exercise more,  eat more healthily, or, in the case of rapper Jay Z, who was caught fighting with his sister-in-law in a hotel lift, it may be to take the stairs. The hope is that the new year will somehow enable us to reset the quest for our ideal self, abandoning our sinful habits and toxic behaviours. Because, as TS Eliot wrote in Little Gidding: 'For last year's words belong to last year's language/And next year's words await another voice.'

Unfortunately, there are few reasons to be optimistic about new year's resolutions. Psychological studies show that almost 80% fail, the vast majority in the first few months. There is even an academic term for this: the 'false hope syndrome', which is a common tendency to set optimistic goals in order to feel better about ourselves, only to see those goals fail shortly afterwards. And the cure for our disillusion is to simply set new goals, even though they will also remain unaccomplished...

Astonishingly, the effect has even been found in hyper-rational areas of life, such as financial investments. For example, there is a 'January effect' in most stock markets whereby trading, especially in uncertain or poorly performing stock, is substantially higher in the first month of the Christian calendar. The explanation is that people project their seasonal optimism even onto their financial - and supposedly logical - decisions. When you feel excited and positive about things, you make carefree (and therefore riskier) decisions, which are spiritually endorsed by our own enthusiasm.

But why do most resolutions fail? The answer is surprisingly simple: personality. That is, our typical patterns of behaviours and habits are mainly a manifestation of our character traits, core values, preferences and default tendencies. They make up who we are and any attempt to change this equates to going against our very nature. That is not to say that we should give up on trying to eliminate unhealthy or sinful habits and get better. However, the key to achieving this is not to wait until the new year, but to work on it immediately and permanently. Furthermore, if we need to look for excuses or find a way to self-motivate, then we are not really interested in changing anyway, so why bother in the first place? So, if you need to wait until the year is over, you are probably not interested in changing.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is a professor of business psychology at UCL, VP of innovation at Hogan Assessments and co-founder of metaprofiling.com.

Follow Professor Chamorro-Premuzic on Twitter at @drtcp

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