Economics and New Year’s Resolutions

In recent days, we’ve introduced a pair of regular guest bloggers, Ian Ayres and Sudhir Venkatesh. We are happy and proud to now introduce a third, a terrific addition and no stranger to readers of this blog: Justin Wolfers, an economist at Wharton and a great explorer of everything from racial bias in N.B.A. refereeing to the decline in women’s happiness to divorce myths.

With the holidays upon us, it’s hard not to turn the economists’ gaze to the rituals around us. So let me ask, what exactly are New Year’s resolutions about? Here are seven theories, collected around my Christmas Eve table:

1. Aspirations: a statement (to self; to others?) of who and what I want to be. New Year’s Eve is simply a focal point for this statement of aspirations.

2. Commitments to self (or my future self): a statement of what I want to be. And if I don’t achieve it, I will be left with the guilt of not having lived up to a promise to myself. If that is costly enough, then the commitment may be useful.

3. Commitments to others: many of us describe our commitments to our friends. Henceforth, it is their job to hold us to it, or else to make us feel bad. Describing my commitment to my friends is like posting a bond, based on my future good behavior. (And perhaps this is a less costly commitment than betting at Stickk.com).

4. A clean slate: we rarely respect the irrelevance of sunk costs in our behavior. The New Year is a clean slate. If my behavior is history dependent (why not eat the chocolate cake if I’m already overweight?), then the clean slate allows my behavior to escape past poor behavior.

5. A signal: I only get to make a small number of resolutions, and so making a resolution about fitness is credible, relative to the fact that I chose not to make a resolution about tardiness. (In this sense, it is like the A.E.A. signaling system, where aspiring assistant professors can make a New Year’s resolution that they really, really would like to work at two specific universities.) Perhaps related to Nos. 2 or 3.

6. Intertemporal reallocation: diets in January follow gluttony in December. Or hard work in January follows slacker time in December. And this is more efficient than forgoing all that terrific food/all those wonderful celebrations/all that time off in December. By this theory, it isn’t surprising that so many resolutions are about health/diet/fitness, and it isn’t any concern that we rarely respect these resolutions past February.

7. Cheap Talk: New Year’s resolutions are simply hot air, stated at around 11:55 pm, on a night involving plenty of alcohol. They are rarely respected, and there is no way for them to be enforced. They are a ritual, but not more important than kissing a loved one 5 minutes later.

Beyond theory, what about empirics? Let me report the results of an informal poll around our holiday table: none of the men (out of 3) and 2 of the women (out of 4) typically make New Year’s resolutions, and only one person actually expects to keep her resolutions. Is this typical?

Do you make New Year’s resolutions? Why or why not? Comments are open.

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  1. Greg says:

    I choose not to make any New Years Resolutions anymore. In 2005, I made one last New Years Resolution: to no longer make any new years resolution. Any behaviors I want to change, I start when I think about it. I do not wait for January 1. Any things that I want to accomplish, I start working towards them when I am able to. It seems strange to engage in negative behaviors when realizing that they are negative. It seems even stranger to wait till a date in the future before one begins to change one’s life. It seems, to me, that it is better to start small and start the change sooner than to engage in ‘cold turkey’ tactics on January. Thus, in August, I realized I needed to lose weight. And so I began exercising more and eating less. To date, I have lost 42lbs(from a start of 212.5lbs and a height of 5’9). Now I need not make a resolution about going to the gym or eating right. Especially since my last resolution that I made in 2005 is one that I still keep, nearly 3 years later.

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  2. Greg says:

    I choose not to make any New Years Resolutions anymore. In 2005, I made one last New Years Resolution: to no longer make any new years resolution. Any behaviors I want to change, I start when I think about it. I do not wait for January 1. Any things that I want to accomplish, I start working towards them when I am able to. It seems strange to engage in negative behaviors when realizing that they are negative. It seems even stranger to wait till a date in the future before one begins to change one’s life. It seems, to me, that it is better to start small and start the change sooner than to engage in ‘cold turkey’ tactics on January. Thus, in August, I realized I needed to lose weight. And so I began exercising more and eating less. To date, I have lost 42lbs(from a start of 212.5lbs and a height of 5’9). Now I need not make a resolution about going to the gym or eating right. Especially since my last resolution that I made in 2005 is one that I still keep, nearly 3 years later.

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  3. Sonali says:

    I find making New Year’s resolutions to be a very self-actualizing experience. I try to make resolutions that are practical and pretty specific. For instance, instead of broadly stating that i will lose x amount of weight, i will say that i will go to the gym x number of times a week, skip the fatty starbucks drinks (or keep it to a minimum). And even though there is so penalty for failing to fulfill a resolutions, i do find it rewarding to go over my resolutions and see how much i have accomplished. I guess the trick is to not to expect miracles, but instead baby steps. The New Year also signals the start, a fresh slate if you may … which is why i make my resolutions at this particular time.

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  4. Sonali says:

    I find making New Year’s resolutions to be a very self-actualizing experience. I try to make resolutions that are practical and pretty specific. For instance, instead of broadly stating that i will lose x amount of weight, i will say that i will go to the gym x number of times a week, skip the fatty starbucks drinks (or keep it to a minimum). And even though there is so penalty for failing to fulfill a resolutions, i do find it rewarding to go over my resolutions and see how much i have accomplished. I guess the trick is to not to expect miracles, but instead baby steps. The New Year also signals the start, a fresh slate if you may … which is why i make my resolutions at this particular time.

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  5. Shan says:

    I don’t make annual New Years Resolutions; I just make resolutions.

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  6. Shan says:

    I don’t make annual New Years Resolutions; I just make resolutions.

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  7. Byron says:

    “So this is the New Year
    And I have no resolutions
    No self-assigned penance
    For problems with easy solutions”
    –Death Cab for Cutie

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  8. Byron says:

    “So this is the New Year
    And I have no resolutions
    No self-assigned penance
    For problems with easy solutions”
    –Death Cab for Cutie

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