New year, new you. But all too often, the old you resurfaces before January is out. Steve Martin, an expert in persuasion, outlines the techniques that can help.
There's no time like the beginning of the new year to think about what we'd like to achieve in the months ahead.
Whether it's a resolution to lose weight, get fit, learn a new skill or start a new business, whether we succeed depends on our ability to persuade ourselves to change and then remain committed to these new behaviours. The same is true of organisations and governments who try to persuade us to buy their products, recycle our rubbish or vote for their party.
Scientists have been studying the influence process for over half a century and have found six principles that not only help organisations to get us to say "yes" to their requests, but could also help us to achieve the goals we set ourselves.
We are most likely to remain true to resolutions if we make the decision freely, write down the actions we are going to take and, most importantly, make those actions public to others.
Weight Watchers hold group weigh-ins at every session so members share their weight loss goals. Smoking cessation programmes encourage quitters to keep a diary and share their desire to give up smoking with friends, family and work colleagues. Social psychologists have shown in numerous studies that people are more likely to remain consistent with a previous decision if it is known to many others. People encounter a very persuasive and interpersonal pressure to "keep face" and not let themselves down.
Just one won't hurt
SO tell others about your resolution.
If someone remembers our birthday with a card, we will be more likely to send them a card when it's their birthday. Similarly if someone invites us to a party, we are psychologically obliged to invite them to our party in return.
Research shows that we will often feel obligated to give back to others the form of behaviour that we receive from them. Businesses understand this principle and will often offer free samples of new products or special introductory incentives, knowing that people are more likely to reciprocate by buying that new product or joining that gym. This principle works equally at home and at work.
SO do something meaningful for a work colleague or family member - they'll be more likely to help you in return.
In a world where we are inundated with information, scientific studies show that messages informing us of what we stand to lose are often more persuasive than the same message framed as a gain.
In a study conducted at the University of California, researchers posing as utility company officials increased the number of home owners who signed up to energy efficiency activities by 350% by telling customers how much money they stood to lose if they didn't sign up, compared to what customers could gain if they did. Our natural inclination is to avoid loss; companies who tell us about "limited time offers" or sales that "must end Saturday" often spur us into action.
Here's what you could lose
SO write down what you stand to lose as it can sharpen the mind to maintain a new behaviour.
When faced with a multitude of options, often the easiest way to decide is to be guided by the advice of an expert. Experience tells us that it makes more sense to pay attention to those who we recognise as knowledgeable sources of information.
Toothpaste manufacturers use dentists to endorse their products and health clubs enlist sports personalities to extol the benefits of exercise. In one study physiotherapists were able to increase the likelihood that their patients would continue exercise regimes at home simply by placing medical diplomas and certificates on the walls of their consultation rooms, proving that they were experts whose advice should be followed.
SO find facts and figures that support your decision.
If 100 people run down a corridor shouting "fire!" then most of us are likely to follow. This is the principle of consensus, or social proof - we use other people's behaviour as a guide to our own.
If we hear work colleagues talking about a new exercise regime or diet, then we are more likely to try it out too. In one study, researchers were able to increase recycling rates by over 30% simply by telling people that their neighbours were recycling too. Interestingly, when asked what caused their change in behaviour, people refused to believe that what their neighbours did had any influence. Organisations use this principle, pointing out the increasing numbers of people giving up smoking knowing the powerful influence that others behaviours have over our own.
Everyone else is doing it...
SO team up with others who share your goal.
It will come as no surprise that we prefer to be influenced and persuaded by people we like. We especially like others who share similarities with us, pay us compliments and co-operate with us.
Commercials often feature people who appear similar to us who go on to say how they used to be unfit/unpopular/shy... until they bought whichever product or service they are now advertising. And personal trainers know the power that a few encouraging comments can work wonders in convincing someone to stick with their new exercise regime.
Keep it up, you're doing great
SO recruit a loved one to act as cheerleader, shouting encouragement from the sidelines.
These universal principles of persuasion are powerful drivers of human behaviour because they usually guide our decisions in the right way. It makes sense to believe an expert, follow the crowd, repay favours and value things in short supply. Understanding how these principles apply in everyday life can help explain a lot about how human behaviour works.
Steve Martin is co-author of Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion, published by Profile Books.
Below is a selection of your comments:
Owing to a minor back injury, I have not exercised since May. However, I will be starting again this week because I am well again, a little overweight, unfit and I darn well miss the exercise. As usual, I will train in the following way:
1. With friends who are likely to rib me big time if I fail to show up without good reason
2. With my favourite motivational music
3. With seasonal targets - to be fit by Easter so that I can enjoy my chocolate egg, to maintain my fitness throughout summer (pure unashamed vanity as we all wear less clothes), autumn and by Christmas I can indulge again.
I have done this for about 20 years and when on a break - while on holiday, for instance - you don't feel depressed or guilty for indulging because you have put the work in and therefore deserve a little reward.
Joe Richardson, Biggleswade
This time last year I made two resolutions - to lose weight (I didn't specify how much - I was so over weight anything was desirable) and to qualify as a solicitor. A year on I have lost 10 stone and qualified. I achieved this by remembering that if I fall off the wagon it is not the end and it is more important that I accept it happened and climb back on again. If you are doing something major this year - go for it.
Asked for my new year's resolutions, I have said "live and enjoy life as much as I can" for years. Everything else will fall into place much more easily when you're happy, and it clearly helps not to be under emotional stress because I am made to feel guilty for not living up to the resolutions I might have made because I'm expected to have them. If there is anything wrong with my behaviour or habits, I need to change my ways regardless of the time of year.
I made a New Year's resolution 10 years ago to stop making New Year's resolutions... So far I haven't broken it.
If you really want to change something, just do it on the spot, or as soon as you can actually start. That way, you could have be working positively with the change for a few days, a few weeks, six months, whatever. Does it work? I stopped buying large cups of coffee from the local coffee shop during the summer, having just had a week away from it, and haven't had one since.
Steve Brereton, York, UK
Don't make new year resolutions. Make spring equinox resolutions at the end of March. The shortest, coldest, darkest days of the year are hardly the best time to start jogging, cycling, walking or even eating less. Wait until the days are longer and the clocks have gone forward.
Start today, but don't try to eat the whole elephant in one sitting. We all know how to eat an elephant; one bite at a time. Just take it day by day and every day do one little thing that aligns with your long-term goal. Just one thing achieved makes you feel great about yourself and far more likely to do it tomorrow.
Charlie, Reading, UK
Food for thought but, sadly and as everyone knows, it all comes down to one word - willpower. There are no magic formulae for keeping to your New Year's resolutions and, like so many other things in life, having effective willpower is one of the hardest things to achieve for most people.
Rob, London, England
Don't expect instant results. I am a regular swimmer and see so many new people at the pool in the first two weeks of January, who when they do not lose two stone after their first gentle 30 min swim give up altogether. Of course you can give up if you want, more room in the pool for me.
Rob, Notts, UK
Good luck to everyone with a new years resolution. Stick with it and keep trying to change. If you fall off the wagon, take a day or so, then get back on.
People often find resolutions such as cutting down on alcohol intake and giving up smoking easier in January as people sometimes go out less, but in terms of embarking upon healthier lifestyles and changing other aspects of your life, the time to start is when you feel you can sustain it.
Karl Chads, London, UK
I am all for resolutions, but there are so many people who make them at New Year's Eve and subsequently break them before February, that it tends to reinforce failure as almost everyone knows someone who didn't take it seriously. If you want to make a positive change to your life don't wait for a day, seize one.
To make resolutions, and then to break them, produces feelings of guilt. What a stupid way to start the year. Don't tell people about your resolutions, just let them find out that you can change things in your life.
Grow in your inner strength, then change, and don't rely on others to help you.
Edmond Petrus, Amsterdam