Posted by: wolf | January 23, 2008

Why good resolutions aren’t always bad

Every year there is a lot of discussion about new year’s resolutions, and also popular science approaches as to what good those resolutions actually are — and the somewhat insipid answer that they don’t really help, at least if you have too many of them.

But science is also about (I don’t want to start a discussion of what makes something scientific, but arguably the following is definitely not being about nonscientific) taking a closer look and digging a little deeper. Psychologist Peter Gollwitzer has done a lot of research on “implementation intentions”, and dutifully tells us: “What is needed is a theoretical and empirical analysis of how people’s good intentions can be made more effective”. (p. 493).

An important distinction to be made in this respect is between the actual setting of a goal (e.g. new year’s headachy resolution not too drink too much the following year) and the “problems associated with getting started and persisting until the goal is reached”. From goal-setting theory, it is well known that it is better to have specific (“I want to drink less than seven beers a day”), challenging, and time-targeted goals instead of just a vague objective. But a lot more can be achieved by bringing implementation intentions into play: Assume that you have set a specific, challenging goal as well as a specific point in time when you want to be finished (“That darn paper will be in science mag before next new year’s eve”), you still need to figure out how to remain at your computer even if your back starts to ache, how not to get distracted, and so on and so on.

So, what is an implementation intention? Once you have formed a goal, an implementation intention helps you to specify the “when, where, and how of responses leading to goal attainment.” (p. 494). That is, you ask yourself what stimuli and what behaviors might be relevant for goal attainment, and then you tell yourself how to react in future situations so as to successfully pursue your goal — “I will keep on writing the paper even if there is a new post on“. Implementation intentions are subordinate to a given goal. Their effectiveness derives from their linking anticipated critical situations to goal-directed responses: the linking to a situational cue helps to automatize a response, which has the positive effect of helping to iniate an action in the first place (you don’t need to think of whether to start, you just start) and also of automatization of responses, thus freeing people from cognitive load.

What I found most surprising about implementation intentions, however, is that they also seem to help with the inhibition of unwanted habitual responses, such as those the most “good intentions” are about: Gollwitzer reports that implementation intentions seemed to diminish or even remove automatic stereotype activations (“whenever I see a homeless person, I ignore that he is homeless”). This is remarkable; I would have thought it’s much easier to automatize some active response than an inhibitory one.

To sum it up: whenever you form a “good intention” or a new year’s resolution, don’t just be challenging and specific, but also specify the situations when you need to act on those intentions.

err… seem to have forgotten the citation:

Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation Intentions. Strong Effects of Simple Plans. American Psychologist, 54, 493-503.

And don’t forget to visit Gollwitzer’s website, where a lot of (more recent) literature is available.


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