life goals

Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions to Yourself, Please

Side profile close-up of the legs of a man on an exercise machine
Photo: 68/Corbis

Are you making a resolution this new year? Good! That’s good. A small request: Whatever it is that you’re resolving to become in 2016, keep it to yourself. This is for your own good. 

According to more than 80 years’ worth of research on the psychology of goal pursuit, people who talk a lot about how they’re going to achieve some goal end up being less likely to put actual work into achieving that goal. A classic example is the marathon: Someone resolves to run a marathon in 2016, then proceeds to tell this to everyone he knows. Suddenly he’s posting photos of his new running shoes all over Instagram, and tweeting about the merits of one training plan over another. He starts to feel like the kind of person who runs marathons – never mind that he’s so far avoided doing much of the work required to actually run one.

Researchers call this sort of nonsense social reality — that is, people often mistake talking about their goal for progress toward achieving that goal, and this is especially true when the goal is tied up with their identity, or the way they want to be perceived by others. Back in 2009, New York University psychologist Peter M. Gollwitzer and others published a paper in Psychological Science investigating this idea, including an experiment involving a group of psychology graduate students.

Gollwitzer and his colleagues asked the students a series of questions about how important it was for them to eventually land a job in the field of psychology; afterward, the students were to write down two actions they planned to do the next week that would help inch them a little closer toward that reality. (For example, paying more attention to their reading assignments, or finally finding some extra help with statistics.) Some of the students’ answers were then read by the experimenter; others were told their answer sheets would be discarded without being read. One week later, the researchers checked in with the students to see whether they’d followed through with the intentions they’d set for themselves in the lab the previous week, and found that those whose weekly goals were read by the experimenter were less likely to report acting on them than those who’d kept their intentions to themselves.

This finding was replicated in two more experiments recounted in the paper, and in one final experiment, the researchers attempted to pinpoint the reason why this happens. They asked law students about their career goals, and some, but not all, of the students were then told to share their intentions with rest of the group. Next, all the students were asked to rate how much they currently felt like a lawyer. Again, something about speaking publicly about one’s identity goals seems to feel a lot like progress, as those who were instructed to share their intentions with the group also reported feeling more like a lawyer in that very moment. The researchers call this “self-completion theory,” and argue that “when other people take notice of a stated identity-relevant behavioral intention, this should engender completeness regarding the superordinate identity goal, and thus reaching the identity goal by actually performing the intended behavior should become less necessary.”

But, obviously, sharing your intentions with a crowd can also be incredibly motivating — if only because you’re now working hard to accomplish whatever it was you said you’d accomplish so you don’t feel like a public failure. The difference seems to be in the way you think about what it means to have openly shared a goal, explains social psychologist Melanie Tannenbaum at Scientific American. Tannenbaum writes:

Research by Ayelet Fishbach and her colleagues at the University of Chicago examined the effects of successful completion of subgoals (like publicly committing to a goal on Facebook or Twitter, for example) on subsequent pursuit of other subgoals that all act in service of a single, superordinate goal (like, say, actually training for and running a marathon).

What they found was that when people conceptualized their success on the subgoal as a form of progress, they were less likely to pursue the overarching goal, because the completed subgoal was seen as an acceptable “substitute” for other subgoals.”

So if talking about a goal feels like progress toward that goal, you won’t get very far. If, on the other hand, you think of sharing your goal with others as a means of strengthening your commitment to eventually accomplishing it, then that accountability should help you. It’s all in the story you tell yourself.

Why You Should Keep Your Resolutions to Yourself