New Year’s Resolutions – Are you doomed to fail?

Got a resolution for 2012? Good luck!
New Year’s Resolutions: Do they work?

What’s so magical about the stroke of midnight on December 31st? Many of us pledge to get fit, save money or stop smoking. Many of us also know how often these attempts end in failure. Perhaps Oscar Wilde had it right:

Resolutions are “pure vanity. Their result is absolutely nil”. Oscar Wilde (1909), The Picture of Dorian Gray

But after examining the science, I’ve become something of a New Year’s resolution convert. Whether a January 1st decision has a better than average chance of success is a tricky thing to measure. However, a team of psychologists tried to do just that – and have come up with some of the best ‘evidence-based’ answers to the resolution question. Many of us, it seems, have been going about it in completely the wrong way…

The Great New Year’s Resolution Experiment

If you hate cold-callers, then the city of Scranton, Pennsylvania wouldn’t be a good place to live. Christmas, about ten years ago a team of American psychologists decided to work their way through the Scranton phonebook, picking names at random. Asking strangers what their new year’s plans were and if they had made any resolutions – most people just hung up (obviously). But after six days, 1,300 phone calls and a delighted telephone company a goodly-sized group of people had agreed.  Over the following weeks and months, these responders were contacted repeatedly and with a selection of psychological quizzes to try to unravel why some people stick to new year’s resolutions and others can’t.

New Year Resolutions – The Results

Lackawana (PA) courthouse II
Scranton - the city of the New Year Resolution experiment. Looks nice.
Less than half of the people (41%) chose to do a New Year’s resolutions – and those who did wanted to:

  1. Lose Weight
  2. Exercise More
  3. Stop Smoking

Sound familiar?

How successful are New Year’s Resolutions?

We like to think that we are makers of our own destiny, but when the rubber hits the road, making meaningful changes in our day-to-day lives is frustratingly difficult. Here are some depressing statistics to warm the cockles of your heart: 

Taken in the context that we are a pretty undisciplined and highly resistant to change – it is incredible that New Year’s resolutions are actually pretty successful – and greatly boost the odds of making a lasting change.With only a calendar date for motivation, the process of making a new year’s resolution makes it ten times more likely that we will succeed in our goals!

Ok, so most resolutions (54%) have still been abandoned by July; but in the light of the normal human abilities, that’s pretty good.
“I didn’t fail the test. I just found 100 ways to do it wrong” Benjamin Franklin

Why some people fail at New Year’s Resolutions

Through their raft of quizzes and questionnaires, the researchers whittled down the key features in common with those who stuck with their new year resolution. One of their most surprising conclusions was that people who really want to succeed are no more likely to stick to a New Year’s resolution than anyone else. Even an overflowing desire to change isn’t enough to making a meaningful and lasting life-change. What seems to be far more important is that resolution-succeeders had:

  • Had made a clear decision to change,
  • Believed that they were able to change,
  • Believed it was possible to keep it up over a long period of time.

The team of researchers found out that successful new year’s resolvers actually used little mental tricks – even if they weren’t aware of it – to help them stay on track. They:

  • Tried to stay as positive as possible
  • Avoided and distracted themselves from things that might tempt them to give up
  • Encouraged themselves whenever they made good progress

Conversely, those who were quitting the gym-membership in the first week of February:

  • Blame themselves any time things didn’t go to plan
  • Spend time wishing that things were different
  • Kept asking themselves how they were feeling

New Year’s Resolutions: Why you should bother

Start diet today
A good day to start a diet?
It doesn’t take a scientist to tell you that flippant and ill-considered new year’s resolutions aren’t going to last. It’s probably all the champagne-fuelled decisions that give new year’s resolutions such a bad press.

A combination of social pressures and cultural beliefs make New Year’s a success for many. Of course, the most able life-changing folk may be drawn to New Year as an excuse to somehow better themselves or to get the help needed to quit for good. The Scranton experiment is also offset by the number of people who refused to take part.

We’re never likely to get a complete answer to these questions, but if you have made a decision to do something meaningful then – quick there’s still time! – the new year could be the best excuse to succeed!

Research Paper:

Norcross JC, Mrykalo MS, & Blagys MD (2002). Auld lang syne: success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year’s resolvers and nonresolvers. Journal of clinical psychology, 58 (4), 397-405 PMID: 11920693

This is an adapted article for Guru, originally published on Dr Stu’s blog.

Article by Stuart Farrimond

January 1, 2012

Doctor Stu is editor of Guru Magazine. He originally trained as a medical doctor before deciding to branch out into lecturing, writing, editing and science communication. He drinks far too much coffee, eats lots of ice cream and has a bizarre love of keeping fit.
You can check out Doctor Stu’s blog at or his poncy personal website Here's his .

Back To Top

Leave Your Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *