Consumers may not always want help sticking to New Year's resolutions, study finds

Photo (c) Nora Carol Photography - Getty Images

Experts say it comes down to self-control versus spontaneity

With one month of 2022 in the books, many consumers are evaluating the success of their New Year’s resolutions. Now, researchers from the University of East Anglia are exploring whether or not consumers are looking to get a push to stick to their resolutions. 

The researchers explained that sticking to resolutions comes down to a decision between self-control and spontaneity. Their findings showed that many consumers identify equally with both of these parts of their identity. Because of this, nudges to abide by resolutions – even if they’re geared toward healthier living – may not always be helpful. 

“Our key message is not about whether nudges towards healthy lifestyles are good for people’s long-term health or happiness,” said researcher Robert Sugden. “It is about whether such nudges can be justified on the grounds that they help individuals overcome what they themselves acknowledge as self-control problems. 

“If that idea is to be used as a guide for public policy, we need to be assured that individuals want to be helped in this way. Our findings suggest that people often may not want this.”   

Self-control versus spontaneity 

The researchers’ study was based on the idea that abiding by New Year’s resolutions, or other health-based goals, comes down to a conflict between two parts of our personalities: self-control and spontaneity. When it comes to resolutions, particularly those that are geared towards adopting a healthier lifestyle, there are often public health policies geared towards getting consumers to stick it out and make healthy choices. 

The team put this idea to the test in an online survey of 240 participants. The group was asked to recall specific memories from their lives – some having to do with achieving health-based goals and some about times they leaned into desires that may have violated their goals. They then ranked how closely they aligned with statements related to self-control and lapses in self-control. 

Ultimately, the researchers learned that participants related equally to messages about self-control and messages about spontaneity. This shows that while sticking to resolutions is valuable, it’s not always what consumers want. Participants felt that it was important to create and maintain long-term goals while also being flexible.

“We conclude that identifying when and where individuals want to be helped to avoid self-control failures is not as straightforward as many behavioral economists seem to think,” said researcher Andrea Isoni. “We believe our findings point to the importance of treating desires for spontaneity as equally deserving of attention as desires for self-control, and as suggesting interesting lines of further research.” 

When looking at how public policies can best support consumers through their New Year’s resolutions and beyond, the researchers believe that flexibility is key. 

“One idea it would be useful to investigate is whether some kinds of deviation from long-term goals are viewed as more spontaneity-affirming than others,” Isoni said. “For example, we found a contrast between our respondents’ spontaneity-favoring attitudes to sugary drinks and restaurant desserts and their self-control-favoring attitudes to exercise. Breaking a health-oriented resolution by ordering a crème brûlée is perhaps more of a positive way of expressing spontaneity than not taking one’s daily run on a wet day.” 

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