Like a lot of people, I practice making New Year’s resolutions at the start of the year. Like everyone who makes resolutions, I find keeping them a challenge. Making New Year’s resolutions is easy; keeping them is hard.
The fact the resolutions are hard to keep is supported by evidence. According to studies done by researchers from the University of Scranton, only 8 percent of people keep their resolutions to the point where they achieve their goals.
On the flipside, some data suggest that making resolutions can be an effective technique. According to one study published in the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology, people formalizing their goals into a New Year’s resolution are up to 10 times more likely to achieve them.
The reason making resolutions is easy while keeping them is hard has something to do with the way the human mind works. One theory that is very useful in analyzing how this works is called dual process theory.
While the foundations of dual process theory can be traced back to the American philosopher and psychologist William James, its modern formulation was made popular by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. The book summarizes the results of decades of research performed by Kahneman, often in collaboration with cognitive scientist Amos Tversky.
According to the dual process theory as formulated by Kahneman, the human brain has two “modes of thought” or ways of forming ideas and coming up with decisions. Kahneman calls these “System 1” and “System 2”.
According to the theory, System 1 is fast, instinctive, and emotional. Meanwhile, System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and logical.
In the book, Kahneman uses the following examples to illustrate the difference between the two systems. Our brains use System 1 when trying to determine that one object is farther than another or when we are trying to complete the phrase “war and…”
Meanwhile, our brains use System 2 when we are determining the appropriate behavior in a particular social setting or when are trying to solve “17×24=?”
Linking this with New Year’s resolutions, System 2 is what we use when we are thinking about the changes we ought to make at the start of a new year and the actions we should do to accomplish those changes.
For example, when we decide to drink less soda in the coming year, we are using System 2. It is also what allows us to recognize that drinking soda and other sugary drinks can be harmful to our health.
System 1, on the other hand, is what we often use to make split-second decisions. For example, when we go into the convenience store thirsty, System 1 can make that can of soda look enticing. When we watch a commercial on TV, System 1 is what connects with the emotional appeal of the commercial and associates the positive emotion in the commercial with the soda brand.
To see how quick System 1 is compared to System 2, try answering the following questions.
First question: A plate and cutlery set costs P110. The plate costs P100 more than the cutlery. How much is the cutlery?
Second question: The number of water hyacinth in a pond doubles every day. If it takes 48 days for the water hyacinths to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the water hyacinth to cover half of the lake?
In a mere split second, System 1 tempts us to give the answer P10 to the first question and 24 days to the second question.
Meanwhile, we need to take a step back to allow System 2 a few seconds to get the correct answers: P5 for the first question and 47 days for the second.
Given this information, many psychologists suggest not relying on moment-to-moment decisions in making healthy changes. For example, if you plan to quit smoking, do not rely on your resolve to quit. That resolve comes from your System 2 thinking, which recognizes that smoking is an unhealthy habit. However, System 2 can be easily outpaced by System 1, which can make the split-second decision of prioritizing short-term pleasure over long-term gain.
The specifics of a successful strategy depends on your particular situation and goals. However, any successful strategy will usually include not giving System 1 the chance to outpace System 2. For example, if you want to spend less time on social media this year, you might do well to delete social media apps on your mobile devices.
In other words, the key to not giving in to temptation is to avoid them in the first place. Now, that is easier said than done. In my next piece, I will examine the importance of changing one’s environment to the goal of changing oneself.