Psychologists find the best way to achieve New Year’s Resolutions – is not to make any? Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen

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Psychologists find the best way to achieve New Year’s Resolutions – is not to make any?

Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen

P1000143New Year’s Resolutions commonly involve resolving to end bad habits – for example giving up alcohol or smoking.

However the latest psychological research suggests that, paradoxically, trying hard to not do something, might render it more likely you will perform negative habits.

This effect is referred to as ironic mental control. The ‘ironic’ part refers to the fact that trying not to do things, in particular trying not to think of something, or endeavouring not to have desires, seems to, paradoxically, bring them on more strongly.

If the theory is correct it explains why every year we make New Year’s Resolutions only to break them quite soon.

The theory of ironic mental control, it is suggested by some, might have been inspired by writer Fyodor Dostoevsky observing in his ‘Winter Notes on Summer Impressions’, (an 1863 account of his travels in Western Europe): “Try not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”

Harvard psychologist, Daniel Wegner and colleagues in a famous experiment  published in the ‘Journal of Personality and Social Psychology’, then found thoughts of a white bear were more likely to recur for those who initially suppressed thoughts of a white bear, than for participants who had not been asked to suppress such thoughts.

The study entitled, ‘Paradoxical effects of thought suppression’, found people were amazingly unsuccessful at prohibiting thoughts of a white bear, with at least one ‘white bear thought’ occurring each minute, despite explicit instructions not to think about a white bear. When told to try to think about a white bear in a subsequent period, these same participants reported even more thoughts of a white bear than participants who hadn’t suppressed initially.

In other words, there is even a re-bound effect – which is when liberated to finally allow yourself to think of something you have been suppressing – you tend to go overboard and do even more of it than you would otherwise. So the problems with trying hard not to do something include even if you succeed temporarily, you are vulnerable to periods of lack of restraint, succumbing to splurge or binge even more than before.

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One of the very latest studies entitled, ‘Why the white bear is still there: Electrophysiological evidence for ironic semantic activation during thought suppression’, measured brain electrical activity changes using scalp recordings, when suppressing different words.

The study,  recently published in the journal ‘Brain Research’, has established that trying to suppress thoughts doesn’t just produce the opposite effect, this occurs at a fundamental brain activity level.

The authors of the investigation Ryan Giuliano  and Nicole Wicha from the University of Oregon and the University of Texas at San Antonio, conclude that thought suppression may be a causal factor in a vast array of psychological problems.  It could be a human instinct to actively seek to avoid distressing thoughts, but unfortunately this strategy appears to backfire, resulting in the resurgence of the very thoughts one is attempting to avoid.

Given weight control is such a large part of many people’s resolutions, a study entitled ‘The ironic effects of weight stigma’ by Brenda Major, Jeffrey Hunger, Debra Bunyan and Carol Miller from the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Vermont, USA, might explain the frequent failure of New Year’s Resolutions over weight. Women were randomly assigned to read a news article about stigma faced by overweight individuals in the job market or to read a control article.

The study published in the ‘Journal of Experimental Social Psychology’ found weight-stigmatizing news articles caused self-perceived overweight women, to consume more calories and feel less capable of controlling their eating than exposure to non-stigmatizing articles.

The answer to the paradox of New Year’s Resolutions might come from a recent study inspired by the common experience that internal dialogue in golfers to avoid hitting the ball into the pond often ends with a splash.

The study entitled ‘Unwanted effects in aiming actions: The relationship between gaze behavior and performance in a golf putting task’, asked participants to perform a golf putting task with instructions to land the ball on the hole (neutral instructions), avoid putting too short, and avoid putting too long.

The authors, Olaf Binsch, Raoul Oudejans, Frank Bakker and Geert Savelsbergh from VU University, Amsterdam, and Manchester Metropolitan University, found that when participants gazed for longer at a specific area, the ball was more likely to land there.

The investigation, published in the journal  ‘Psychology of Sport and Exercise’ concludes that the negative instruction, for instance, not to putt past a hole, influences mental processes during the putt. Thinking about a behaviour increases the likelihood of engaging in that response, even when the person is trying to avoid it.

Daniel Wegner and Daniel Gold showed this effect applied even to thoughts of  past lovers, where they investigated the futility of the desire to put departed relationships out of mind. It seems that the harder one tries to suppress the thoughts of an ‘old flame’, the more one is disturbed by them.

The study entitled, ‘Fanning Old Flames: Emotional and Cognitive Effects of Suppressing Thoughts of a Past Relationship’, found that the suppression of thoughts of an old flame promotes the persistent psychological presence of the ex in our minds.

The authors argue, in their study published in the ‘Journal of Personality and Social Psychology’, that one possible explanation is that thoughts which return to mind following suppression tend to be particularly intrusive. Thoughts that pop into mind in this way seem to create greater emotional disturbance than thoughts that follow from an intentional train of thought.

Daniel Wegner, one of the pioneers in the field of ironic mental control is quoted as arguing that the secret of making successful New Year’s Resolutions is to keep them affirmative and positive. Don’t resolve to give up smoking – resolve instead to become more fit.

Taking up running is likely to help you give up smoking as pursuing one goal becomes incompatible with the other. Pick goals that are irreconcilable with bad habits. Positive resolutions (do’s) might be easier to control than negative ones (don’ts). Don’ts require constant effort and battling with distractions.

So rather than resolving not to do something this New Year, instead determine to be more positive and do something.

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