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New Year resolutions: a failure of evolution

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 January, 2012, 12:00am

Happy New Year! Your resolutions are probably doing OK on day one.

But here's some bad news: most New Year resolutions fail.

That's what research into procrastination says. Resolutions fail because people are overwhelmed by temptations that obstruct their goals. It is tempting to go out with friends now instead of finishing that assignment due tomorrow.

Our fallibility is contrary to traditional ideas in economics of humans as rational beings, but the field of economics is where much procrastination research has taken place in recent years. Behavioural economists look at 'present bias', or how things in the present hold more weight for us than things in the future.

Dilip Soman, a professor at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, uses a monetary scenario: 'Suppose I give people a choice between $100 now and $110 a week from now. Many people pick the $100 now. If I add a year to both options ($100 in 52 weeks or $110 in 53 weeks), now everyone picks the $110.'

It's like in vision, he says: 'When seeing an object that is close by, it appears disproportionately large.'

Psychologists call it impulsiveness, saliency, early gratification. But it all comes down to the same thing: a sort of evolutionary impatience that favours the short term.

But why this present bias?

Evolutionary psychologists believe it has to do with a tug of war between a more ancient part of the brain (the limbic system, which focuses on more immediate rewards) and the more recently developed part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex, which has more long-run, abstract thinking).

Back in hunter-gatherer days, the limbic system was helpful because the main way to survive was to do as little as possible, so people were geared to conserve energy when they could because of the risks associated with action.

Ancient man didn't always want to hunt that mammoth if his food supply wasn't yet hitting a low. Why risk a dangerous task when not absolutely necessary? Survival was about the present, not the future.

So people may procrastinate because the limbic system (which thinks 'a nap now') may override the more modern prefrontal cortex (which may rationalise that 'hunting now can provide rest later').

But evolution always operates from hindsight. In psychologist Dr Piers Steel's book The Procrastination Equation he writes that evolution 'custom-fits us to the environment we were in, with no anticipation or prediction ... it is like getting a tailored suit for your wedding day. You look magnificent in it, but try it on again 20 years later and it pinches in all the wrong places.'

Not all scientists believe in a biological basis for procrastination, as Steel does, but they agree that it comes down to some kind of failure in self-regulation, and, often, that failure is due to a fundamental dichotomy in decision-making.

It is as if we are two different selves at once, a present self thinking only of the now and a future self considering the consequences, and they are warring with each other.

'You're actually playing a game,' said Professor Edwin Lai, a behavioural economist who studies procrastination at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. 'Your present self is playing a game with all your future selves.'

Soman, of the University of Toronto, calls it the difference between the doer and the planner, and recent studies on procrastination from the University of Rome by Antonio Pierro and Mauro Giacomantonio focus on similar differences between what researchers call 'locomotors' (people who are more action driven) and 'assessors' (people who think about the long-term consequences more).

In 1759, nearly two decades before Adam Smith famously asserted in The Wealth of Nations that people acted through self-interest, Smith published a lesser known work called The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which he said that human behaviour was a struggle between the 'passions' - impulsive behaviour and drives - and the 'impartial spectator' - the rational actor.

Within us, we have both: the doer and the planner; the locomotor and the assessor; the passionate actor and the impartial spectator; the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex.

Procrastination wins when the limbic system wins out, because, Steel said: 'We developed exactly as much willpower as we needed in the past, not the present.'

But this is no reason to despair about making resolutions.

Our tendency to procrastinate is no different from the other byproducts of evolution: we do not have to be ruled by them.

One way to control our tendencies involves self-imposing constraints. The psychologist Professor Daniel Ariely allowed his university students to set their own deadlines for three assignments in the semester, with a grade punishment for each day they handed in late. Students who picked the final day of the semester as deadline for handing in all three assignments fared the worst in their grades, most likely because they procrastinated. Students who spaced out their assignments evenly across the semester did best.

Still, given that procrastination is so innate, sometimes we should allow for it. Here is where psychologist Steel introduces the 'unschedule': he asks us to examine our temptations when we are procrastinating. Napping or playing games may reflect actual needs we are not meeting. By paying attention to these needs and putting aside time for them in our 'unschedule', we may become more efficient in our work schedule.

Trying to juggle all these needs, and being able to choose the long-term, is part of our uniqueness.

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