The Why #34: Should I bother with New Year’s resolutions?

By Dan Monheit, 10.12.21

Question submitted by Grace, Randwick

I hear you Grace. There are plenty of promises we make ourselves, some of which we even intend to keep. ‘Just one more episode’. ‘No more takeaway coffee cups’. ‘Finish writing that screenplay’. ‘Drop those last three kilos’. In fact, if I’d kept even 10% of the commitments I’ve made to myself over the years I’d be an NBA star with a sprawling business empire, two Grammys, a global charitable foundation and a wildly popular email newsletter that answered curly questions about peculiar human behaviours for thousands of adoring subscribers around the world.

(Sigh.)

As you and I both know, the unfortunate reality is that we also tend to be pretty lenient with ourselves, frequently writing our own commitment leave passes on the grounds of ‘busyness’, ‘laziness’, ‘covidness’ and life just generally being ‘hard’.

(Double sigh.)

All of which points us to your very timely question of whether we should even bother, especially as the world charges towards ‘peak commitment day’, aka January 1.

Could an arbitrary 24 hour period on the Gregorian calendar really do more for our ‘best selves’ than will power, training programs, infomercials and thousands upon thousands of apps?

If you’ve made it this far, I’ve got a good feeling about you reading on to find out.

The Commitment Bias

The Commitment Bias is our tendency to stay locked into a course of action, even when we know that the likely outcomes aren’t looking that good.

In 1966, Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser from Stanford University conducted a study to see just how much a previous commitment would affect future decision making. Researchers went door-to-door in a residential California neighborhood, asking homeowners to put up a small (3 inch) sign promoting safe driving.

Two weeks later, the researchers hit the streets again, this time asking homeowners to put up a gigantic, poorly lettered, property obscuring, front door obstructing sign that read ‘Drive Carefully’ for one week.

Households that had previously said yes to a small sticker agreed to the God-awful signs at a staggering rate of 76%. This compared to just 17% for households that hadn’t previously been approached. How much difference can a little commitment make? In this case, around 450%!

As we all know, Commitment Bias wreaks havoc in far more places than suburban front yards. It’s what keeps us studying the same degree, even if deep down we know we’d be better off studying something else. It’s why we finish the meal we ordered, even if we’re full halfway through, and why we stick with our footy team, even if they bring us nothing but misery.

While it’s easy to dismiss the whole ‘new-year-new-me’ stuff as a self-delusional joke, there is something to be said for writing out — and committing to — your goals at the start of a new year if you really want to see them through.

For brands, getting customers to make a commitment, however big or small, can help unlock bigger and more profitable opportunities down the track. It’s why the best eBay sellers start items at ‘99c no reserve’ and why luxury brands offer entry level ‘taster’ products like perfumes and keyrings.

That rounds out our last edition of The Why for 2021 🎉

Thanks for sending in your weird and wonderful questions in another weird and wonderful year. We’ll be back to tackle an inbox full of irrationality early in 2022.

Until then -
Behaviourally Yours,

Dan Monheit

PS If you missed the last edition, you can still check out why people spend so much on wedding invitations here.

Bad Decisions Podcast
Learn more about the Commitment Bias on episode 32 of the Bad Decisions podcast.

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