New Year's Resolution: Why Fuzzy, Ambiguous Resolutions Work Best

Okay, so it's January 2nd and you're at the gym with your fresh commitment to shed those holiday pounds and get fit once and for all. First step, after hopping into your bright new gear, is to have your HHI measured. HHI is the Holistic Health Index, a much improved version of the old BMI that measures your overall healthful lifestyle. This will help you set your goals and monitor your progress.

Ideal HHI is between 45 and 55. You punch your personal information into the computer, hit "Enter" and wait patiently as the display reads: "Calculating Your Health Index." The computer's algorithms crunch away for 30 seconds before finally spitting out your personal score: 61.

How do you feel? Is that good? Are you motivated to dig in and sweat? Is that starting point discouraging? You kind of knew you weren't in the ideal range, but does this new information help with your newfound resolve?

What if, instead of 61, the computer had given you a range, say between 59 and 63? Would that be better or worse? Common thinking is that people prefer precise information -- "If we can measure it, we can manage it." But is this true? In fact, a new study is suggesting the opposite -- that fuzzy feedback may actually be more motivating than an exact score.

There's no such thing as HHI. It's a fictitious health index invented by psychological scientists Himanshu Mishra and Arul Mishra of the University of Utah. The Mishras (working with Baba Shiv of Stanford) actually ran an experimental simulation of this hypothetical New Year's scenario, complete with a HHI-calculating computer that gave some volunteers a precise score and others a vague range. The scientists suspected that the vague feedback would create an "illusion of proximity" to the ideal -- allowing the psychological leeway to focus on the lower end of the range -- and thus make the goal seem more achievable.
And that's just what they found.

As described in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, those who got fuzzy feedback had more optimistic expectations about getting fit and healthy, and these expectations acted like a placebo, actually leading to greater weight loss over three weeks. Apparently, the mere possibility of being a 59 made 55 seem not so remote, which motivated the volunteers to diet and exercise more earnestly. By contrast, the rigidity of the precise 61 was actually discouraging.

So good luck, but consider getting rid of that electronic bathroom scale -- the one that calibrates your progress, or lack of it -- to the second decimal point. It may sound counterintuitive, but apparently vagueness and imprecision mean possibility and hope to the calculating mind. Precise information means the opposite -- it limits interpretation and diminishes potential. These findings are consistent with a body of research on mindfulness, which has demonstrated over and over that our expectations, our mindsets, can either expand or narrow our horizons. What's new here is the link between fuzziness and performance, which the scientists examined more closely in two additional experiments.

They again used a deception to manipulate the volunteers' expectations. This time they gave volunteers a piece of chocolate, and told them that an ingredient in cocoa, called flavanol, was known to enhance mental acuity. Some of the volunteers were told that the chocolate morsel contained exactly one gram of flavanol -- precisely the dose needed to improve mental acuity -- while the others were told that it contained somewhere between 1/2 gram and 1 1/2 grams. In other words, only some of the volunteers got information that was vague and malleable -- and therefore encouraged interpretation and imagination. In fact, all the volunteers ate an identical piece of chocolate.

The volunteers were asked about their expectations -- that is, whether they believed the chocolate would enhance their performance. Then they all played a Nintendo game called BrainAge, a test of mental sharpness. The volunteers had all played this game earlier to establish a baseline, so this round was actually a measure of their improvement, presumably a result of the performance-enhancing flavanol.

The results were unambiguous, and the same as in the earlier study. The volunteers who were given an imprecise dose of flavanol -- and thus the liberty to imagine its potency -- did indeed believe their intellectual prowess was enhanced. And it was in fact: These volunteers improved much more on the test of intellectual sharpness than did those who got an exact dosage. That exact dosage in effect constrained their ability to believe in their enhanced powers.

The scientists ran a final version of this study, in which they used a product called "kaempferol" to enhance muscle strength. The experiment was similar in design, and the results matched the earlier findings. The imprecise dose once again led to measurable improvement -- in this case on a muscle grip. The imprecise dose of kaempferol in effect bolstered the volunteers' imagination, opening their minds to the possibility that their hands and arms were physically powerful. And they became physically powerful.

Strength training, weight loss, mental sharpness are all things that we might hope for, and resolve to work for in the new year. And they're all there for the taking -- if we just keep our thinking as fuzzy and imprecise, and hopeful -- as 2011 is in fact.