The Science of Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work (And What To Do About It)

Notebook and penHow many New Year’s resolutions have you made in your life? How many have you successfully accomplished? The estimate is that less than 10% of New Year’s resolutions are actually achieved (University of Scranton Psychology Professor John C. Norcross, Ph.D.). There’s a lot of homespun folksy advice out there this time of year about how to make sure you reach your New Year’s goals, but I thought I’d share the actual science of how to change behavior.

There’s two main lines of brain and behavior science that influence New Year’s resolutions: The science of habits and the science of self-stories.

Let’s start with the science of habits.

A lot of New Year’s resolutions have to do with making new habits or changing existing ones. If your resolutions are around things like eating healthier, exercising more, drinking less, quitting smoking, texting less, spending more time “unplugged” or any number of other “automatic” behaviors then we are talking about changing existing habits or making new habits. Habits are automatic, “conditioned” responses. You get up in the morning and stop at Starbucks for a pastry and a latte. You go home at the end of work and plop down in front of the TV.  Here’s what you need to know about the science of changing existing habits or making new ones:

  • Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not hard to change habits IF you do so based on science.
  • To change a new habit you essentially have to create a new one, so whether you are changing an existing habit or creating a new one, the “scientific” method for doing so is the same.
  • You have already created literally HUNDREDS of habits that you have now, and you don’t even remember how they got started, so creating habits can’t be that hard or you wouldn’t have so many of them!

To create a new habit you have to follow these three steps (based on B.J. Fogg and Charles Duhigg)

  1. You MUST pick a small action. “Get more exercise” is not small. “Eat healthier” is not small. This is a big reason why New Year’s resolutions don’t work. If it’s a habit and you want a new one it MUST be something really small. For example, instead of “Get more exercise” choose “Walk 1/3 more than I usually do” or “Take the stairs each morning to get to my office, not the elevator”, or “Have a smoothie every morning with kale in it”. These are relatively small actions.
  2. You MUST attach the new action to a previous habit. Figure out a habit you already have that is well established, for example, if you already go for a brisk walk 3 times a week, then adding on 10 more minutes to the existing walk connects the new habit to an existing one. The existing habit “Go for walk” now becomes the “cue” for the new habit: “Walk 10 more minutes.” Your new “stimulus-response” is Go For Walk (Stimulus) followed by “Add 10 minutes.” Your existing habit of “walk through door at office” can now become the “cue” or stimulus for the new habit of “walk up a flight of stairs.” Your existing habit of “Walk into the kitchen in the morning” can now be the stimulus for the new habit of “Make a kale smoothie.”
  3. You MUST make the new action EASY to do for at least the first week. Because you are trying to establish a conditioned response, you need to practice the new habit from the existing stimulus from 3 to 7 times before it will “stick” on its own. To help you through this 3 to 7 times phase make it as EASY as possible. Write a note and stick it in your walking shoe that says “Total time today for walk is 30 minutes”. Write a note and put it where you put your keys that says: “Today use the stairs.” Put the kale in the blender and have all your smoothie ingredients ready to go in one spot in the refrigerator.

If you take these three steps and you practice them 3 to 7 days in a row your new habit will be established.

Now let’s tackle the science of self-stories.

The best (and some would say the only) way to get a large and long-term behavior change, is by changing your self-story.

Everyone has stories about themselves that drive their behavior. You have an idea of who you are and what’s important to you. Essentially you have a “story” operating about yourself at all times. These self-stories have a powerful influence on decisions and actions.

Whether you realize it or not, you make decisions based on staying true to your self-stories. Most of this decision-making based on self-stories happens unconsciously. You strive to be consistent. You want to make decisions that match your idea of who you are. When you make a decision or act in a way that fits your self-story, the decision or action will feel right. When you make a decision or act in a way that doesn’t fit your self-story you feel uncomfortable.

If you want to change your behavior and make the change stick, then you need to first change the underlying self-story that is operating. Do you want to be more optimistic? Then you’d better have an operating self-story that says you are an optimistic person. Want to join your local community band? Then you’ll need a self-story where you are outgoing and musical.

In his book, Redirect, Timothy Wilson describes a large body of impressive research of how stories can change behavior long-term. One technique he has researched is “story-editing”:

  1. Write out your existing story. Pay special attention to anything about the story that goes AGAINST the new resolution you want to adopt. So if your goal is to learn how to unplug and be less stressed, then write out a story that is realistic, that shows that it’s hard for you to de-stress, that  you tend to get overly involved in dramas at home or at work.
  2. Now re-write the story — create a new self-story. Tell the story of the new way of being. Tell the story of the person who appreciates life, and takes time to take care of him/her-self.

The technique of story-editing is so simple that it doesn’t seem possible that it can result in such deep and profound change. But the research shows that one re-written self-story can make all the difference.

I’ve tried both of these techniques — creating new habits using the 3-step method, and creating a new self-story. The research shows they work, and my own experience shows they work.

Give it a try. What have you got to lose? This year use science to create and stick to your New Year’s resolutions.

What do you think? What has worked for you in keeping your resolutions?

For more info:

Timothy Wilson’s book Redirect:

Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit:

My book, How To Get People To Do Stuff

B.J. Fogg’s website:  tinyhabits.com

Your Brain On Stories

Logo for HumanTech podcast

Why does a good story grab us?  In this HumanTech podcast episode we talk about what happens in your brain when you hear a story, why stories are powerful, and which aspects of stories are the most effective if you want to grab and hold attention, and get people to react and engage.

HumanTech is a podcast at the intersection of humans, brain science, and technology. Your hosts Guthrie and Dr. Susan Weinschenk explore how behavioral and brain science affects our technologies and how technologies affect our brains.

You can subscribe to the HumanTech podcast through iTunes, Stitcher, or where ever you listen to podcasts.

Would People Rather Give Themselves a Shock Than Sit And Think?

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Dr. Timothy Wilson is a social psychologist at the University of Virginia. He joins us in this HumanTech podcast to talk about research on how self-stories affect our behavior, and his new research on the things people are willing to do to not have to just sit and think. And you’ll also hear how Dr. Wilson’s first book, Strangers To Ourselves: The Adaptive Unconscious, dramatically changed the course of my career.

You can subscribe to our HumanTech podcast through iTunes, Stitcher, or where ever  you listen to podcasts.

And here are some links to Dr. Wilson’s books if you want to check them out for more information:

Redirect, by Timothy Wilson, 2011 –  If you want to know how to make permanent and lasting change in your behavior, or the behavior of someone you know, then this is the book to read. Wilson covers the recent, and often very surprising, research on interventions and therapies that result in people actually changing. Permanent behavior change is hard to come by. This book tells you what does and doesn’t work based on research.


Strangers to Ourselves: The Adaptive Unconscious, by Timothy Wilson, 2004 – This is the book that actually got me started seriously on the topic of the unconscious. I had read Blink (Malcolm Gladwell) and although that was an interesting book, I wanted more depth and detail. Gladwell referenced Wilson’s book so I started reading it and light bulbs went off for me. This is a great book with lots of interesting insights and strong research.

HumanTech is a podcast at the intersection of humans, brain science, and technology. Your hosts Guthrie and Dr. Susan Weinschenk explore how behavioral and brain science affects our technologies and how technologies affect our brains.

The Next 100 Things You Need To Know About People: #114 — Great Stories Release Brain Chemicals

diagram of stories and brain chemicals

George Lucas and the Hero’s Journey — In 1975 George Lucas had written two drafts of Star Wars, but the story had not yet “come together”. He then re-read a 1949 book by Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Lucas had read the book first in college, and now he re-read it. He decided to revise his Star Wars story to match one of the story archetypes that Campbell described in his book, The “Hero’s Story. A typical hero’s story usually contains the following steps:

  1. The hero is living in his ordinary world, but then he receives a message that calls him to adventure and a higher purpose.
  2. He often is reluctant to go on the adventure.
  3. He has an encounter with someone wise who encourages him to take the first step.
  4. He faces some kind of test.
  5. He encounters helpers.
  6. He has to undergo a harrowing ordeal.
  7. He is successful and brings back some kind of treasure.
  8. He is transformed and brings the treasure to the rest of the world.

The Hero’s Journey is an example of one of the 7 archetypal story plots that Campbell described. The Hero’s Journey is a version of the “Overcoming a monster” story. Here’s a summary of the seven:

  1. Overcoming a monster—The protagonist has to defeat an antagonist (monster) who is threatening the protagonist’s homeland (for example, Star Wars).
  2. Rags to riches—The protagonist is poor and suddenly becomes wealthy with money, power, and/or a mate. The protagonist loses it all, but then grows as a person and gets the important riches back (for example, Cinderella).
  3. The quest—The protagonist and friends set out to get something important, face lots of challenges along the way, and eventually are triumphant (for example, The Lord of the Rings).
  4. Voyage and return—The protagonist goes to a foreign place, makes it through many dangerous situations, and comes back without anything of value, except a personal transformation (for example, The Chronicles of Narnia).
  5. Comedy—The protagonist is somewhat of a fool and gets into lots of embarrassing situations and near-disasters, but in the end triumphs over all the adversities and finds happiness (for example, A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
  6. Tragedy—There may be a protagonist, or an antagonist. He or she ends up with a tragic ending/death. He or she may learn from the troubles encountered along the way, but not enough to be redeemed in this life (for example, Macbeth).
  7. Rebirth—Instead of a protagonist, there’s an antagonist. He or she learns and is redeemed over the course of the story (for example, Beauty and the Beast).

These common plots resonate with people. When a story follows one of these plots, people can easily understand the story and are more likely to become involved.

Drawing blood while you are watching a video — Paul Zak is a neuroscientist who is interested in brain chemicals. He drew blood from study participants while they watched different videos to measure brain chemicals. Zak was interested in what story elements would cause which brain chemicals to release. He found that when people felt distress they released cortisol, and when they felt empathy they released oxytocin.

The dramatic story arc comes from Gustav Freytag, a nineteenth-century German playwright and novelist. Freytag studied plays and stories from the Greeks and Shakespeare through to stories from his own time. According to Freytag, an effective story is divided into five parts:

Diagram of dramatic story arc

 

  1. Exposition—The exposition is the introduction. It sets the time and place, the protagonist or hero, the antagonist or villain, other characters, and the basic conflict of the story.
  2. Rising action—The rising action is where the conflict that was introduced during the exposition starts to grow. Tension increases. The initial conflict becomes more complicated.
  3. Climax—The climax is the turning point. At the climax, the protagonist has a change of fate. If it’s a comedy, then before the climax things were not going well for the protagonist, but after the climax things look up. If it’s a tragedy, then the opposite happens. Things get worse for the protagonist. The climax is the highest point in the arc.
  4. Falling action—After the climax, it may seem that everything is done, but that’s actually not true. This is the last point of suspense. Unexpected things may still happen, so the outcome that the audience thought was set during the climax may or not occur.
  5. Denouement—People tend to call the last part of the arc the conclusion, but Freytag called it the denouement. This is a French word referring to an unraveling or untying of a knot. The protagonist either comes out on top (comedy) or the antagonist does (tragedy).

Zak found that during the rising action people release cortisol, at the climax people release oxytocin if they feel empathy with the main character, and if there’s a happy ending people release dopamine. Interest can be maintained by cycling through these story pieces and keeping the brain chemistry going (see the image at the top of the post).

What do you think? Do your favorite stories follow the dramatic story arc? Are they one of the 7 archetypal stories? Is this why Batman vs. Superman was considered a not great movie?

If you liked this article, and want more info like it, check out my newest book: 100 MORE Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People.

Your Brain On Stories

Drawing of a brainOne day, many years ago, when I was early in my career, I found myself in front of a classroom full of people who didn’t want to be there. Their boss had told them they had to attend the class I was giving. I knew that many, even most, of them thought the class was a waste of their time, and knowing that was making me nervous. I decided to be brave and forge ahead. Certainly my great content would grab their attention, right?

I took a deep breath, smiled, and with a strong voice, I said  “Hello everyone. I’m certainly glad to be here.” More than half the class wasn’t even looking at me. They were reading their emails and writing out to do lists. One guy had the morning newspaper open and was reading that. It was one of those moments where seconds seem like hours. I thought to myself in panic, What am I going to do?

Then I had an idea. “Let me tell you a story,” I said. At the word “story” everyone’s head jerked up and all eyes were on me. I knew I only had a few seconds to start a story that would hold their attention. “It was 1988 and a team of Navy officers on the ship Vincennes in the Persian Gulf, were staring at a computer screen.  Something had just appeared on the radar in protected air space. They had orders to shoot down any hostile aircraft. Was this a hostile aircraft? Was it a military plane? Was it a commercial airliner? They had 2 minutes to decide what to do.”

I had them! Everyone was interested and riveted. I finished the story, which nicely made my point about why it’s important to design usable computer interfaces, and we were off to a great start. The rest of the day flew by, everyone was interested and engaged, and I got some of my best teacher evaluations ever.

Everyone likes stories. We like to listen to stories, read stories, watch stories (movies, TV, theatre) and tell stories. In fact, stories are our normal mode of information processing. Stories are so normal to us that we don’t even stop to think about why that is.

Let’s say you are listening to me give a presentation on the global economy. I’m NOT telling a story, but giving you facts and figures. If we had you hooked up to an fMRI machine we would see that your auditory cortex is active, as you’re listening, as well as Wernicke’s area of the brain where words are processed. If you were reading a newspaper article on the same topic then we would see, again Wernicke’s area as well as your visual cortex as you are reading.

But what if I started telling you a story about a family in South America that is being affected by changes in the global economy – a story about the father going to work in a foreign country to earn enough for the family, and the mother having to drive 100 kilometers for health care… what’s going on in your brain now?  the Wernicke’s area would be active again, as well as the same auditory or visual cortices, BUT now there’s more activity. We would see many other parts of your brain light up. If, in my story, I described the sharp smell of the pine forest high in the Andes where this family lives, your olfactory sensory areas of the brain would be active as though you were smelling the forest. If I described the mother driving over rutted muddy roads, with the vehicle careening from side to side, your motor cortex would be lighting up as though you were driving on a bumpy road. And if I started talking about the devastation the family felt when their young son died before he could get medical treatment, then the empathy areas of the brain would be active.

Which means that you are literally using more of your brain when you are listening to a story. And because you are having a richer brain event, you enjoy the experience more, you understand the information more deeply, and retain it longer.

Paul Zak, a professor at Claremont College and author of The Moral Molecule: How Trust Works, researches the role of oxytocin. Oxytocin is a neurochemical in the brain that Zak says gives the “it’s safe to approach others” signal in the brain. In his research he has discovered that:

  • If you develop tension in the story you will sustain attention.
  • If you sustain attention then it is more likely that the people hearing the story will start to share the emotions of the main characters in the story.
  • If people share the emotions of the main characters then they are likely to mimic the feelings and behaviors of the characters when the story is over.
  • Listening to a character story like this can cause oxytocin to be released.

And if oxytocin is released then it is more likely that people will trust the situation and the storyteller and more likely that they will take whatever action the storyteller asks them to take.

What do you think? Do you use stories purposely to increase engagement when you communicate?

365 Ways To Persuade And Motivate: #11 Identify The Operating Self-Story

What's Your Story?

Someone knocks on your door. You recognize him as a kid from your neighborhood. He’s selling popcorn as a fundraiser for a club he belongs to at school. The club is trying to go to the state convention. How do you react?

It depends on the story, or persona, you have of yourself when it comes to topics such as school, fundraising, and your relationship to your neighborhood.

Here’s one story you might relate to:

“I’m a very busy person. When I’m at home I want to relax, not get bombarded with people at the door selling things. I don’t like it when people bother me at home with these fundraising schemes. The schools should pay for these trips and not make us buy this overpriced popcorn. This poor kid isn’t to blame, but I’m not going to buy the popcorn because it just perpetuates this behavior. Someone has got to act right on this. I’m the kind of person who does what is right on principle. I’m going to say no nicely, but firmly.”

Or maybe you can relate to this story:

“Oh, isn’t that great that the kids are going to the state convention. I remember when I went on a similar trip when I was in high school. It was really fun. Maybe not all that educational, but definitely fun! I’m the kind of person who encourages students to have lots of experiences outside of our own neighborhood. I am the kind of person who supports the school. I’ll buy some popcorn and help this kid out.”

Or maybe you can relate to this story:

“It kind of annoys me that there are always these kids selling things. But this is part of being a good neighbor. I’m part of the community. I am a good citizen of our neighborhood. I’ll buy the popcorn because that’s what a good community member would do.”

We all have stories we tell ourselves about who we are and why we do what we do. These stories are critical in our behavior. If you want people to change their behavior, one of the most powerful things you can do is get them to first change their self-story. This, in turn, will lead to behavior change. In subsequent posts I’ll explain how this works in more detail.

The first step is to understand what is the current operating self-story. Once you’ve identified that, then you are ready to help the person craft and different story that will lead to different behavior.

What do you think? Are you aware of your own self-stories that affect your behavior? What about the self stories and behavior of people whose behavior you want to change? Friends? Family? Customers? Have you done your research so you know what the current operating self-story is?

The book on the power of stories to change behavior is Redirect, by Timothy Wilson.

To learn more check out our 1 day seminar on The Science of Persuasion.

100 Things You Should Know About People: #56: People Process Information Best In Story Form

Picture of a storybook
Stories capture and hold attention

One day, many years ago, when I was early in my career, I found myself in front of a classroom full of people who did not want to be there. Their boss had told them they had to attend the class I was giving. I knew that many, even most, of them thought the class was a waste of their time, and knowing that was making me nervous. I decided to be brave and forge ahead. Certainly my great content would grab their attention, right?

I took a deep breath, smiled, and with a strong voice, I started the session with a big “Hello Everyone. I’m certainly glad to be here.” More than half the class weren’t even looking at me. They were reading their emails and writing out to do lists. One guy had the morning newspaper open and was reading that. It was one of those moments where seconds seem like hours. I thought to myself in panic, What am I going to do?

Then I had an idea. “Let me tell you a story”, I said. At the word “story” everyone’s head jerked up and all eyes were on me. I knew I only had a few seconds to start a story that would hold their attention. “It was 1988 and a team of Navy officers on the USS Vincennes in the Persian Gulf, were staring at a computer screen.  Something had just appeared on the radar in protected air space. They had orders to shoot down any hostile aircraft. Was this a hostile aircraft? Was it a military plane? Was it a commercial airliner? They had 2 minutes to decide what to do.”

I had them! Everyone was interested and riveted. I finished the story, which nicely made my point about why it’s important to design usable computer interfaces, and we were off to a great start. The rest of the day flew by, everyone was interested and engaged, and I got some of my best teacher evaluations ever. Now I make sure to use that magic phrase, “Let me tell you a story” at least once in every talk I give, or class I teach.

Stories are very powerful — They grab and hold attention.  But they do more than that. They also help people process information and they imply causation.

Tried and true story formats — Aristotle identified the basic structure of stories, and many people have expounded on his ideas since. One model is the basic three act structure: Beginning, Middle and the End. This may not sound very unusual, but when Aristotle came up with it over 2000 years ago it was probably pretty radical.

Continue reading “100 Things You Should Know About People: #56: People Process Information Best In Story Form”

100 Things You Should Know About People: #23 — You Are Hard-Wired For Imitation and Empathy

Baby sticking out tongueIf you put your face right in front of a young baby and stick out your tongue, the baby will stick out his or her tongue too. This happens from a very young age (even as young as a one month old). So? What does this have to do with anything? It’s an example of the built-in, wired-into-our-brain capacity we have for imitation. Recent research on the brain shows how our imitative behavior happens.

Mirror neurons firing— In the front of the brain there is a section called the premotor cortex; motor as in movement. This is the part of the brain where you make plans to move. (It talks to the primary motor cortex which is the part of the brain that sends out the signals that actually make you move). So if you are holding an ice cream cone and you think about moving your arm to bring the ice cream cone up to your mouth, and then you do it, you can see first the premotor cortex lighting up and then the primary motor cortex lighting up. Neurons in the premotor cortex are firing — nothing surprising there. But here is where it gets interesting. If you watch someone else lift their arm and eat the ice cream cone a subset of the same neurons also fire. Just watching other people take an action causes some of the same neurons to fire as if you were actually moving. This subset of neurons have been dubbed, “mirror neurons”. We share these mirror neurons with other primates as well.

Who is taking action? — How does your brain know when you are taking the action vs. watching someone else take the action? After your mirror neurons fire from watching your friend take a lick of the ice cream cone, there is a feedback loop. Your brain registers that no ice cream was tasted, and therefore you know that you are watching someone eat ice cream, not that you just ate ice cream. Continue reading “100 Things You Should Know About People: #23 — You Are Hard-Wired For Imitation and Empathy”

Sell with Stories

It’s all about stories. Finca is a micro loan company. You give them some money and they loan it to people around the world who are trying to improve their lives. It’s a great organization doing vital work. Their website has good photos, but they could be even more effective if they would focus focus focus… Here’s a snapshot of their home page. There is a block at the top that cycles photos from people and small businesses that they loan to, and this photo block is great. However, they could use it even more… the one liner they have under the photo should start to tell a story about the people in the photo. When you click on the photo it should take you to a page where you get to see (with more photos) and read the story of the people in that photo (it takes you instead to their goal of a 100,000 village banks).

On their home page they also have a picture of some people at an event to open a UK branch… this is not a compelling photo, and it distracts from the photos above which are the real people who are recipients of the micro loan. And lastly, the yellow column on the right is also a distractor… small text, lots of text, small images… it draws attention away from the main STORY which should be the photos of the people.

In Neuro Web Design: What makes them click? I write about how and why stories are so powerful. Finca’s home page would be more compelling if they would focus the home page on telling stories of the people that are helped by donating micro loan money, and if you could click on the photos to get the full story. The home page would be improved if they made it simpler, taking off other information from the home page… let it focus on story.

Do you have a favorite site ? or a site that you think is not persuasive enough? Send me the URL and I’ll review it here at the blog.

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