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Resolutions are not for the spontaneous

People make New Year’s Resolutions hoping to spark positive behaviour change. I know not everyone wants to share their resolutions, but I am fine to tell you mine: my New Year’s Resolution for 2022 is to fulfil the resolution I made last year, which of course was not fulfilled in 2021.

What do you think about me now you know that I cannot keep my resolutions? Some of you may think I have self-control problems. – and this is actually what many economists say: ‘that person has a self-control failure, and he needs our help!’

Some economists have even developed ‘two selves’ models in order to demonstrate how self-control problems occur in people like me. For example, in their book Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein represent self-control problems in terms of a person’s two selves, a far-sighted ‘Planner’ and a myopic ‘Doer’: “The Planner is trying to promote your long-term welfare but must cope with the feelings, mischief and strong will of the Doer, who is exposed to the temptations that come with arousal.”

Following this reasoning, some people do not fulfil resolutions because they are myopic and unable to resist temptation!

If you are a person who does not always follow plans or fulfil resolutions, this may make you uncomfortable: I make resolutions and plans quite often, but the reason I do not always stick to them is not that I am short-sighted, it is simply because I do not think they are important! I value spontaneity. Sometimes, I want to leave myself scope to respond to situations as they arise, rather than following pre-scripted plans. Is that a strange way to think about things? Does everyone believe long-term goals are more important than short-term fun? Do I really need some help?

Working with Dr Kevin Grubiak, Professor Andrea Isoni, Professor Robert Sugden and Dr Mengjie Wang, we designed a survey aiming to find out people’s attitudes towards self-control and spontaneity.

One question we investigated was whether or not people generally judge self-control to be more important than spontaneity. We gave participants statements such as ‘I ought to eat less high-fat food’, ‘I envy people who always eat what they like’, ‘It’s important to make long-term plans and stick to them’ and ‘I like my plans to be flexible and leave plenty of room for spontaneity’, and asked them to tell us their attitudes towards these statements (from strongly disagree to strongly agree).

The data showed that although there are considerable differences in individuals’ judgements about the relative importance of spontaneity and self-control, many of our respondents lean more towards spontaneity. Just as people may value the exercise of self-control in achieving their goals, they may value spontaneity in responding to their desires.

This is not surprising. We all want to live a long and happy life, and this may be why people set up goals and make resolutions. However, when a person is in a situation in which they face a trade-off between long-term goals and short-term desires, choosing to have short-term fun does not always mean they have self-control problems or are unable to resist temptations. After all, not everyone is happy to stop eating a delicious piece of cake for the sake living several minutes longer.

So, the next time you learn that your friend is unable to stick to their plans to get up early, do not buy them an alarm clock with wheels or one that sprays water in their face (unless they are a fan of playing chasing games in the morning or washing while lying in bed). Sometimes, they may simply value spontaneity more than the plan. They are not myopic, and they do not need anyone’s help.

Dr Jiwei Zheng is a Lecturer in Applied Microeconomics