Ah, there’s nothing so promising as the New Year’s resolution — a better body, a better bank account, a better world. And nothing so daunting – working out, working harder, working for the common good. It’s a time for decision making and commitment to a future self and a future that is in some way better than the present one. Trouble is, as humans we aren’t known for reliably making decisions in our own long term best interest. Neither are we known for reliably keeping pledges to ourselves and to others.
As this New Year approached, I got thinking about resolutions and more generally about decision making and why we choose to do certain things and not others. I wondered why decisions are so often against our own best interests and why they’re so difficult to stick to, even when we know we’ll suffer if we don’t.
The first problem is New Year’s itself. The month of January is named for the two-faced Roman god Janus – he’s the god of doors and beginnings – so this month has for the last couple of millennia been a time of looking back and looking ahead. The double purpose of the month means it’s an ideal time to make decisions because looking back means we can take into account lessons learned from mistakes and successes while planning the future.
That’s all fine and good. We’ve decided that the first day of this set of days named after a Roman god will be the one we designate as decision making time, but it is after all totally arbitrary. The New Year in China, for Hindus and for Muslims among others has nothing to do with this particularly western tradition.
So, if we’re going to make decisions — whether they’re about something as self-centered and trivial as our personal appearance (I’ll lose twenty pounds in 2012 or take up body building as a hobby) or to something as fundamental as our state and future as a species (I’ll convert my car to burn vegetable oil or refuse to fly anywhere ever again) — the decision-making process shouldn’t be tied to something as arbitrary as the arrival of a particular date in our Gregorian calendar. Decisions should be made more rationally and more nobly. We should make decisions, say, about our health only after receiving the results of a medical checkup; we should make financial decisions before we sign up for a mortgage; we should make decisions about the future of our environment based on the latest science and out of concern for the planet and our own fate.
But we just don’t always make our decisions out of nobility or via a rational thought process. Too often, we make decisions in other ways for other reasons. A study by a friend of mine, Chloe Tudor, proves it. A fourth year student at the University of Toronto, Chloe was motivated by Robert Kenner’s hard-hitting 2008 film Food, Inc. exposing the worst of factory farming to study how people make ethical decisions about what they eat.
Chloe designed an elegant little study in which she showed ten participants a ten-minute film about slaughterhouse practices. Afterwards, she asked each if watching the footage was enough to make them change their eating habits. While all were disturbed by what they saw, only half were motivated to find ways to eat more humanely. Following up several weeks later, Chloe discovered that only one participant had stuck to the initial decision to avoid factory farmed meats.
Disillusion is there to read in Chloe’s report. “Animal rights activists argue if slaughterhouses had glass walls,” she writes, “everyone would be vegetarian. However, even my small experiment tells me that this isn’t the case.”
Chloe sensed there was some force at work strong enough to keep people from their commitments and even from making them in the first place. She challenged the participants by identifying at least seven shops where they could easily buy meat produced by more ethical means. They responded with what Chloe categorized as excuses. She discovered that both sets of participants felt too inconvenienced by the changes they’d have to make in their shopping practices. Meat is an essential part of a healthy diet. It’s easier to ignore the issue of ethical treatment of animals altogether. Chloe countered each excuse with a rational answer that explained how easy it was for the participants to act on their impulse to avoid factory meat. The result? No change in behaviour.
So what is it that kept the participants from making or living up to their deeply felt decisions? That most intractable of human traits, laziness. It’s just plain easier to keep doing what we do. It seems to me that Chloe’s study makes a strong argument for the New Year’s resolution. Who are we kidding? We need a kick in the pants like a day named for regeneration and set aside as the one day of the year dedicated to making decisions. Otherwise, we’d procrastinate ourselves into heart attacks and climate change. We might do so regardless, but the New Year’s resolution at least gives us a chance. Flawed as it is as a means to a better future self and a healthy future world, we’ve settled on January 1 as decision day and we’d better stick to it.
Okay, so resolutions are made. Now what? How do we stick to our commitments? In the conclusion of this two-part series on the New Year’s resolution, I’ll take a look at commitment devices, a new development in the science of decision making.
Fireworks @ Flickr
Food Inc Poster @ Wikipedia