Justin Wolfers, an economist at Wharton and a great explorer of everything from racial bias in N.B.A. refereeing to the decline in women’s happiness to divorce myths, blogs at the Freakamonics blog about New Year Resolutions. (Link to the Freakamonics blog post via a India Uncut post.). Here are his 7 theories about what NYR are all about.
1. Aspirations: a statement (to self; to others?) of who and what I want to be. New Year’s Eve is simply a focal point for this statement of aspirations.So, what is your new resolution? And when will you break it? :)
2. Commitments to self (or my future self): a statement of what I want to be. And if I don’t achieve it, I will be left with the guilt of not having lived up to a promise to myself. If that is costly enough, then the commitment may be useful.
3. Commitments to others: many of us describe our commitments to our friends. Henceforth, it is their job to hold us to it, or else to make us feel bad. Describing my commitment to my friends is like posting a bond, based on my future good behavior. (And perhaps this is a less costly commitment than betting at Stickk.com).
4. A clean slate: we rarely respect the irrelevance of sunk costs in our behavior. The New Year is a clean slate. If my behavior is history dependent (why not eat the chocolate cake if I’m already overweight?), then the clean slate allows my behavior to escape past poor behavior.
5. A signal: I only get to make a small number of resolutions, and so making a resolution about fitness is credible, relative to the fact that I chose not to make a resolution about tardiness. (In this sense, it is like the A.E.A. signaling system, where aspiring assistant professors can make a New Year’s resolution that they really, really would like to work at two specific universities.) Perhaps related to Nos. 2 or 3.
6. Intertemporal reallocation: diets in January follow gluttony in December. Or hard work in January follows slacker time in December. And this is more efficient than forgoing all that terrific food/all those wonderful celebrations/all that time off in December. By this theory, it isn’t surprising that so many resolutions are about health/diet/fitness, and it isn’t any concern that we rarely respect these resolutions past February.
7. Cheap Talk: New Year’s resolutions are simply hot air, stated at around 11:55 pm, on a night involving plenty of alcohol. They are rarely respected, and there is no way for them to be enforced. They are a ritual, but not more important than kissing a loved one 5 minutes later.
I never really made resolutions but somehow in the last couple years did take the opportunity at the turn of the year to take stock of where life had been in the past 12 months - a period of reflection, if you will - not remonstrance of any kind - and then think about what I could/should do in the new year to make some changes in areas where they were overdue but procrastination, and sheer laziness had led to a long period of inaction.