How to keep your New Year’s resolutions with two psychology-based strategies

Imagine one day you hear a knock at your door, and you open it to find a friendly man who introduces himself as a local volunteer for safe driving. He proceeds to ask if you would be willing to place a public-service billboard on your front lawn while showing you a photograph of the very large, ugly billboard. In gigantic letters, the billboard reads: “Drive Carefully.” If you are like most residents who were asked this as part of a research study, you would most likely decline. In fact, only 17 percent of the residents in the original study agreed to have the billboard placed on their front lawn.

Now imagine that two weeks earlier a different volunteer worker came to your door and asked if you would be willing to display a small window sign that read: “Be a Safe Driver.” This time, the sign was only three-square-inches in size. Would you agree to place the small sign in your window? If so, do you think your decision to display the small sign in your window would influence your decision to place the large, ugly sign on your lawn two weeks later? You may be surprised to learn that in the original study, a whopping 76 percent of residents agreed to display the large billboard after first agreeing to display the small window sign.

Why would consenting to a small request have such a large impact on a person’s subsequent decision? To account for this finding, it’s important to understand the basics of two widely known social psychological theories. The first is what is known as self-perception theory. The essential idea behind this theory is that just as we infer other people’s attitudes by observing their behavior (“John just ate four pieces of pizza; he must really like pizza!”), we also infer our attitudes by observing our own behavior (“I agreed to display the ‘Be a Safe Driver’ sign, I must really care about driver safety”). This may sound odd at first, but a large body of research over several decades has confirmed this basic notion that we look to our own behavior to infer our attitudes.

Understanding our own thoughts

In one study, for example, researchers asked students to view several cartoons while holding a pen in their mouth. Half the participants held a pen with their teeth, which uses the same muscles that are activated when people smile. The other half held the pen in their lips, which uses muscles that are incompatible with smiling. The researchers found that the people who held the pen in their teeth while viewing the cartoons rated them as significantly more humorous than those who held the pen with their lips. This suggests that people’s attitudes toward the cartoons were at least partly based on their own facial expressions (“I’m smiling, so I must find these cartoons funny”).

Self-perception theory can help explain the billboard study described above. By first agreeing to display a small sign, the residents began to see themselves as the type of people who care about driver safety. Or, perhaps, they began perceiving themselves as the type of people who help their community by encouraging others to drive safely. In other words, they looked to their own behavior to infer their attitudes about displaying public-service signs. By the time the large request came, people’s perceptions about themselves had changed, so they became much more likely to agree to display the large, ugly billboard on their lawns. The fascinating part about self-perception theory is that it suggests that our behavior fundamentally affects how we see ourselves.

The second theory that can help account for the billboard study is known as cognitive dissonance theory. Proponents of this theory suggest that we have a need for cognitive consistency. Because of this need, people feel very uncomfortable when they experience inconsistent thoughts, feelings or behaviors. For example, when people behave in a way that is inconsistent with their values, they experience an unpleasant state of arousal or “dissonance.” We are motivated to make this uncomfortable feeling go away. A classic illustration of this phenomenon is someone who values health, yet smokes cigarettes. The inconsistency between their attitude (valuing health) and behavior (smoking) produces an uncomfortable state of dissonance. 

Typically, people can get rid of this dissonance in one of two ways: They can either change their behavior (quit smoking) or change their beliefs about the harmful health consequences of smoking. Unfortunately, because behavior is often more difficult to change, people are more likely to change their attitudes instead. In the example of smoking, rather than attempting to quit, people are more likely to change their attitudes by engaging in various forms of rationalizations to convince themselves that smoking isn’t harmful (“My grandpa is still alive at 91 and he has smoked for 50 years”).

How can cognitive dissonance theory explain why so many more people agreed to place a large billboard on their lawn after first agreeing to display a small sign? The key is the need for consistency. People who already agreed to display a small sign exhorting others to drive safely would feel inconsistent with their behavior if they subsequently declined the second request. To prevent the experience of dissonance, they are more inclined to agree to display the large sign. This tendency for people to agree to a larger request after first agreeing to a smaller one is more specifically known as the “foot-in-the-door phenomenon.” 

In another illustration of this effect, researchers in Toronto found that when people were directly approached for donations for the Cancer Society, 46 percent of them donated. However, almost twice the amount of people donated if they were first given a Cancer Society lapel pin to wear the day prior. The key point is that people believe more strongly in something after they have publicly committed to it.

How to use these theories for your own good

There are several practical applications that we can take away from these two theories. As we’ve seen, people have a need for cognitive consistency. As soon as our behavior is at odds with our commitments, we feel cognitive dissonance (which is uncomfortable). Fortunately, we can use this dissonance in our favor when it comes to stopping unwanted behavior. A simple way to do this is to commit to your goals by explicitly telling other people what you are planning to do. For example, if you have a goal to stop drinking coffee, one way to help yourself follow through with your resolution would be to tell all your friends and family about your commitment. You may even consider making it public on your social media accounts. You may be surprised how effective public commitments are when it comes to following through with your goals. 

There are countless examples of people successfully quitting smoking, losing weight and completing other difficult goals by simply making their commitments public. This is because inconsistency has negative connotations in our culture and it becomes uncomfortable when we stray from our commitments. Just imagine how awkward and hypocritical it would feel to drink coffee in front of those you recently relayed your intentions to quit. This thought alone is often enough for people to refrain from acting contrary to their commitments.

The second practical application comes from self-perception theory. When we decide to act in a certain way, our behavior fundamentally changes how we see ourselves. Our changed self-perception then influences our future behavior. Say, for example, that you have had a nonexistent prayer life and that one of your New Year’s resolutions is to start praying every day. If you have not been praying regularly, I would not recommend starting big—some two hours a day. Just like being asked to display a large billboard upfront, you will likely not follow through with such a large change in behavior. Rather, I would suggest starting small so that you can maintain consistency. 

For example, if you don’t pray at all, start with five minutes a day. As you continue to do this, not only will you start to perceive yourself as someone who prays regularly, but you will notice that it becomes easier to stick to your commitment. Eventually, you will also find yourself desiring to pray for longer periods of time. In other words, your attitudes toward prayer will begin to change as a function of simply praying regularly. As we have seen, small decisions can have very large effects on future behavior. You can use this to your own advantage when you want to initiate a new practice in your life.

In sum, self-perception and cognitive dissonance theories both suggest that deciding to behave in a certain way can have powerful effects on our subsequent attitudes and behavior. Therefore, two ways to help you follow through with your New Year’s resolutions are to start small and make your commitments public. You will find that implementing these simple principles will go a long way to helping you achieve your goals. 

Want to get those commitments in writing? If you’ve ever stared at a blinking cursor, unsure of what to say or where to start—or if you avoid writing altogether because you’re “not creative enough,” take our free email course and find your story today.

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