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New Year’s Resolution: good intentions but doomed to failure?

07 January 2014

Lyndsey Boardman

UCLan psychologist offers expert advice

New Year’s Resolution: good intentions but doomed to failure? says Sandi Mann.

Your tummy is groaning weakly from the chronic overfilling it has endured over the festive period and as you sprawl out on to the sofa, you vow ‘never again’.

As we enter the New Year we are revived with good intentions as we craft those New Year’s resolutions, oblivious to the fact they are the same pledges made the previous year (when they only lasted a mere three weeks).

Dr Sandi Mann, a psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) says making resolutions is all too often a near pointless exercise with less than a quarter of people estimated to actually achieving them in the long term. There are some psychological models however that predict our likelihood of keeping to our resolutions – or explain why we won’t.

Promises to lose weight, quit smoking, exercise more and cut down on alcohol top the list *.

Most New Year’s resolutions tend to offer an antidote to the excesses of the past fortnight and as such, tend to be health-related. Promises to lose weight, quit smoking, exercise more and cut down on alcohol top the list *.

Using The Health Belief Model (HBM), we can predict the likelihood of your New Year’s resolutions lasting longer than the kids’ interest in their new toys. The Health Belief Model states that a person’s beliefs about the health-enhancing value of the change they plan (diet, exercise etc.) tend to be weighed against their perceived costs in participating in the planned activity (e.g. time, financial, quality of life etc.).
A good example of how this works is with losing weight, the most common resolution that we make at this time of year. According to the HBM, the chances of sticking to your new diet in 2014 depend on the following factors:

• Your perceived susceptibility: how likely you think it is that you will experience negative effects from not sticking to your diet (e.g. how much you really believe your health will suffer or that your self-esteem would be reduced if you did not pursue the diet).

• Perceived severity of this outcome: how serious you think these negative outcomes would be (e.g. A belief that you might develop high cholesterol would be less severe than a belief that you might develop heart disease).

• Perceived barriers/costs to the new diet: these include financial costs as well as psychological (such as the reduced quality of life that you might associate with the new diet).

• Perceived benefits: the benefits of looking better or being healthier have to outweigh the perceived costs.

• Cues to action: these are the things that can stimulate change such as seeing a photo of yourself looking huge, a health scare, breaking a chair or overhearing a cruel comment about your weight.

• Finally, self efficacy: how much you believe in your ability to actually stick to the diet. If you know you failed the last ten attempts to diet, you are likely to lack confidence and therefore set yourself up to fail.

If you know you failed the last ten attempts to diet, you are likely to lack confidence and therefore set yourself up to fail.

Therefore, those resolutions that focus on the repercussions; including consequences of not dieting or a health scare, concentrate on the tangible benefits; for example looking and feeling good and have a plan of action including managing the psychological costs of the new diet by incorporating ‘treats’ and pleasurable foods, have more of a chance of success.

Armed with this knowledge, increasing the likelihood of sticking to the diet can be achieved through manipulating the variables in the model; getting a health check to get a real estimate of the serious consequences of a continued fat and sugar laden diet, making a list of all the benefits of losing weight, minimising the psychological costs of the new plan, taking a spectacularly unflattering photo of yourself and sticking it to the fridge (yes, this does work) and finally, developing a strong belief in your ability to stick to the diet for a given period of time by following a realistic eating plan (perhaps one that incorporates real food, treats and social support).

Making New Year resolutions at the last minute can backfire as such decisions tend to be less genuinely motivated. If it is a spur of the moment thought, it is less likely you will follow the actions through. But, apply the principles of the Health Belief Model, and 2014 could be the year that your resolutions lead to real and lasting change.

* Research by Miller and Marlatt in 1998