science of us

This Common Trick for Helping You Keep Your New Year’s Resolution Can Easily Backfire

Photo: Andrey Popov/Getty Images/iStockphoto

All the technologies that have wormed their way into our daily lives mean that it’s never been easier to stick to a New Year’s resolution. Self-trackers give us the tools to monitor our progress. Social media gives us a platform to announce our intentions to all our friends and acquaintances, and becomes a place to solicit tips and boosts when the going gets tough. Smart gadgets remind us when we’re veering off course. It’ll be easy to hit 10,000 steps, you think, when you can see them add up in real time throughout the day; spending less should be fairly painless once you get yourself one of those budgeting apps.

But as Alexandra Samuel argued in a recent column on JSTOR Daily, the digital tools that help us stick to our resolutions — Fitbits, online food diaries, even posting your goal on Facebook for an extra dose of accountability — can also backfire, lulling us into a false sense of security over how attainable those goals really are. The reason: The promises of motivation and ease that these tools provide can make us more susceptible to something called “false hope syndrome,” a term coined by psychologists Janet Polivy and C. Peter Herman in 2000 to describe the unreasonably high expectations we have for our own ability to change.

“False-hope syndrome is in many respects a problem of overconfidence,” they wrote, and can be stoked by “groups, books, and other sources of help with changing [that] often play into people’s fantasies that they can change enormously, and do so effortlessly and quickly.” And when that false hope is dashed — when your quest for self-betterment hits a setback, or your resolution proves harder to keep than you originally thought — the fall is that much harder: “When unreasonable expectations for self-change are not met, people are likely to feel frustrated and despondent, and to give up trying to change.”

In other words: Hold onto the Fitbit, if that’s your thing, but know that a tracker alone won’t turn you into some kind of Über-fit super-stepper. The best resolution is one that doesn’t go overboard — and the best strategy is one that keeps your hopes in check.

To Stick to Your Resolution, Avoid This Common Strategy