Making New Year’s Resolutions and an Attempt to Keep Them

Every year, millions of people make New Year’s resolutions, but most of us fail to achieve them. A new year is a good occasion to stop for a while, summarize the events and highlights of the last year and make some promises for the future – which often barely survives January. But why is it so hard to keep our resolutions?

Take a look at the following scenario:

John spends 2 hours in front of the television every day, since he loves watching series – they make him happy and entertained. Recently, John started to realize that he put on some weight. On the 31st of December, John makes a New Year’s resolution: he will start going to the gym, thus sacrificing TV time on these days. He is faced with two types of decisions:

1) How many days a week should I go to the gym? This decision has to be made only in the beginning when John sets in stone the details of his resolution.

2) Should I go to the gym right now? This situation occurs every day, at 6 p.m.

Neoclassical microeconomics and behavioral economics broadly agree when it comes to the first question but end up with quite different results when answering the second one. Let’s start with the first question, which covers long-term planning. According to the microeconomic theory, John is a rational agent, who makes his decisions in a way which is best for him. John’s consumption bundle contains two goods: hours allocated to either television or gym. The budget constraint is 14 hours per week, 2 hours a day. Doing either of these activities makes John happy, which is measured by his utility function. The utility function incorporates all the factors, both positive and negative, in a single number. Watching TV is fun, so it gets a high number. Going to the gym brings a lower value as it is uncomfortable (especially in the winter) and exhausting, but the long-term health benefits and immediate good feeling after lifting weights compensates his efforts.

An important feature of the utility function is the decreasing marginal value. For example, watching TV on Monday is fun, but every subsequent day cause less and less pleasure – it gets less entertaining on the one hand and the guilt from skipping trainings is getting unbearable on the other. John’s preferences and utility function provides an optimal allocation of his weekly free time – 8 hours of watching series and 6 hours of weight training. This allocation is strictly preferred over any other division.

Behavioral economics theories are based on neoclassical models, but they often leave behind rigorous mathematical analysis in favor of more realistic psychological aspects. However, as these factors usually don’t influence long-term planning, in our simplified model about John’s New Year’s resolution, behavioral economics has nothing significant to add.

What is the reason for the strong similarity between the models regarding long run decision-making?

Richard Thaler (1981, 2015) proposed a powerful model of human decision-making under environmental conditions where self-control plays a key role. “Self-control is about conflict. […] Our model is really based on a metaphor. We propose that at any point in time an individual consists of two selves. There is a forward-looking ‘planner’ who has good intentions and cares about the future, and a devil-may-care ‘doer’ who lives for the present.”

Humans, fortunately, tend to accept the planner’s good intentions about the future and rely on its decisions. That is why even if we drop the assumption that John is a rational agent, we can confidently suppose that his choice of free time allocation will be more or less the same as described above.

After examining the planning phase of John’s resolution, it’s time to focus on the second part – how will he stay committed to his plans when so many good series are in the television and the weather is getting colder every day?

John, the rational agent in neoclassical economics models, would always recalculate his utility function with the corrected environmental conditions and inner factors. If nothing dramatic has happened since the planning phase, John will go to the gym three times a week. Bad mood or tiredness will never dissuade him, because long-term benefits always exceed small inconveniences. A sudden snowstorm or a flu may cause some troubles, but eventually John will end up with the originally set workload in the gym.

In the meanwhile, John, the human, will probably face some difficulties during the same period. His doer self will not remain that passive forever. All the evolutionary experiences accumulated in the cerebellum and the basal ganglia of his brain will protest against going to the gym with all their efforts; why would anyone choose the exhaustive weightlifting when there is so many good movies in the television and the comfortable couch is so inviting? Although John has several reasons to still choose the gym, he can never escape from the bad nature of his brain, as long as he’s a human.

According to the ‘Triune Brain’ model of MacLean (1973), the human brain can be divided into three distinct regions, which represent the gradual acquisition of the brain structures through evolution. Reptilian brain (basal ganglia) was acquired first and it’s in charge of our primal instincts. The emotional brain (limbic system) is responsible for our emotions and the affective system. Finally, the rational brain (neocortex) is in charge of the rational or objective thought. Of course, mental activities are way more complex and interconnected than MacLean’s simplified model suggests, but it’s still very useful since its arguments are comparable to Thaler’s ‘planner-doer’ model.

Having both reptilian and emotional brain (or a doer self) is essential in life – they might have fallen prey for the selection pressure otherwise – but we must pay the price for having them. And the price is high: weak self-control, addictions and aggression, just to name a few.

Now the question arises, what can be suggested to John, having a triune brain, who wants to keep his resolution? He may try some methods that either change the environment to trick his doer self or support his planner self with the desire to dominate the doer.

A non-exhaustive list of such techniques contains announcing his goal publicly, searching for a training partner, removing the tempting object (well, the television), using external software such as StickK for financial commitment or eliminating the decision itself (with making the training unavoidable).

References and Further Readings

Komninos, A. (2020). The Concept of the “Triune Brain”. Interaction Design Foundation.

MacLean, P.D. (1973). A Triune Concept of the Brain and Behavior. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Thaler, R.H. & Shefrin H. (1981). An Economic Theory of Self-Control. Journal of Political Economy. 89 (2): 392-406.

Thaler, R.H. (2016). Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Varian, H.R. (2014). Intermediate Microeconomics. A Modern Approach. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Vosgerau, J. (2019). Exerting Self-Control ≠ Sacrificing Pleasure.

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