Many people try to keep their New Year’s resolutions going by motivating themselves with prizes or accountability buddies. But a new meta-analysis to be published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology suggests we may be overlooking a simple yet effective way of sticking to resolutions: asking ourselves a few pointed questions.
Study review co-author Eric Spangenberg of the University of California, Irvine, is an expert in what's called the “question behavior effect.” He and a team of researchers reviewed 104 studies encompassing more than two million participants and found that if researchers asked people a question about a new habit they would like to adopt -- say, “Will you recycle?” or “Will you exercise?” -- those people were 13.7 percent more likely to follow through on that behavior in the future.
There are many theories that could potentially explain why being asked a simple question prompts behavioral change, but Spangenberg says one of the strongest is called the "consistency-based explanation.” Being confronted with a question such as “Will you eat healthy food?” forces you to reflect on all the times in the past when you ate junk food, and that doesn’t feel good. There’s only one way to get rid of that icky feeling, Spangenberg explained to HuffPost: either change the way you eat, or try to convince yourself that eating healthily isn’t very important.
Of course, it’s very difficult for a rational person to convince themselves of the latter.
“It’s pretty hard to say it’s not important to vote, eat right or exercise,” said Spangenberg, a professor and dean in UC Irvine’s Paul Merage School of Business. "So the easiest way to get rid of that cognitive discomfort is to perform that behavior."
The studies Spangenberg included in his analysis weren’t done within the context of trying to keep a New Year’s resolution. And his team also found that the most successful people who performed certain behaviors were less likely to commit to a specific time frame for their actions -- an idea that’s anathema to the traditional New Year's resolution.
Still, he allowed that his findings might benefit people who want to commit to a certain goal. Enlisting a friend to ask certain resolution-themed questions of you, or simply writing down your resolutions in question form and then meditating on your responses, could give you an edge you need to succeed with your 2016 resolutions.
Past research has shown that people who make predictions to themselves are more likely to perform that predicted behavior, Spangenberg pointed out. And people who declare their intentions publicly to friends and family are also more likely to change their behavior in a positive way.
"Some combination of telling other people and meditating on the question yourself could be the perfect storm for motivating behavioral change in a positive direction,” he concluded.
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