It’s January 1st, and you’ve decided to really dedicate yourself to working out every day (or reading a book a week, or keeping a budget of your finances). New Year, new you, right? You’ve told the world, and you’re already feeling great about your go-getter attitude. Until March, when you wake up and realize you haven’t done a thing in service of your goal. Sound familiar? There’s a reason.
Although you haven’t actually become a fitness buff, bookworm, or financial guru, telling others about your resolution has made you think you’ve taken on that identity in their minds—what psychologists call “social reality.”
For a 2009 study, NYU psychologist Peter M. Gollwitzer and his colleagues ran a series of experiments to examine this phenomenon. In each experiment, students of a certain area of study (psychology in some experiments, law in another) were given a survey where they were asked to rate how important it was for them to find a job in their chosen field, then declare what steps they planned to take to get them there. Half of the participants gave their surveys to an experimenter to read; the other half kept their surveys anonymous. Next, they were asked to perform a task in their chosen field: for example, clinical psychology students counted the instances of eye contact between a therapist and a patient on a 40-minute recording, law students were given 45 minutes to solve 20 different criminal cases. All participants were told they could finish early if they wanted. In every experiment, those who had shared their goals with the experimenter spent less time working on the task than those who had stayed anonymous. Say the researchers, “Other people’s taking notice of one’s identity-relevant intentions apparently engenders a premature sense of completeness regarding the identity goal.” That is to say, if someone notices the goals you have, you end up feeling like you’ve already accomplished them.
What’s more, it seemed that the more dedicated people were to their goals, the worse the effect was. People who didn’t really care about clinical psychology weren’t as affected by the researchers’ knowledge of their goals as those who really wanted to be clinicians.
If you don’t think this applies to you, you’re in good company—this topic has caused some controversy in the Curiosity office. Many of us think that a declaration of your goals is just a way to stay accountable to them, not a way to feel like you’ve already achieved them. Luckily, science has something to say about that: it all depends on how you frame it.
A 2006 University of Chicago study looked at the effects of successfully achieving a subgoal (like announcing your workout routine on Facebook) on achieving the main goal (like actually sticking to that workout routine all year). They found something interesting. If people thought of that subgoal achievement as progress toward the main goal, they were less likely to keep pursuing the main goal—the subgoal was considered a substitute for other, possibly more helpful, subgoals. If, on the other hand, they thought of achieving the subgoal as a show of commitment to the main goal, they were more likely to pursue the main goal. That commitment made them feel like the other subgoals were more worthwhile, since they were consistent with the identity to which they had committed (you fitness buff, you!).
That leaves us New Years resolutioners with a choice. If you really want the public accountability and social support that comes with announcing your plans, you may want to try and frame that announcement not as a step in your process, but as a public commitment to it. However, if you’re just as happy striving in solitude, delete that Facebook status and get started on your own.