Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail: Q&A with Daniel Akst

February 2, 2011 at 11:57 am , by

Now that the first month of 2011 has trudged to a chilly close, it’s a good time to review those New Year’s resolutions that so many of us made with utmost sincerity and determination a scant four weeks ago. How did they manage to evaporate so quickly? I recently sat down to discuss this problem with my old friend Daniel Akst, whose new book We Have Met the Enemy: Self Control in an Age of Excess (Penguin Press), examines what he calls “the democratization of temptation” and why we have so much trouble resisting it.

LG: In We Have Met the Enemy, you say that the extraordinary abundance we enjoy today comes with a price—the need to self-regulate, since society is no longer doing it for us. Why is self-control so hard these days?

DA: In truth, self-control has always been hard, because we’re torn between short-term rewards, which exert the most power, and the much more abstract—yet ultimately greater—long-term rewards we can achieve if we can manage to keep our impulses in check.

LG: Still, in your book you look back in history and argue that self-control is exponentially harder now and the stakes are higher.

DA: Yes, that’s true. And that’s because, while human nature hasn’t changed, the landscape of temptation has. Not that long ago, all you had to spend in a store was the money in your pocket, and the store was probably closed on Sundays. Today, giant emporia are open 24/7, and in addition to the money in your pocket you have several pieces of plastic that enable you to get thousands of dollars in instant credit from banks you’ve never even visited. Similarly, a hankering for fried chicken once meant catching and killing a live chicken and then plucking and cooking it. Now, all it takes is a trip to the nearest KFC. And there’s no shortage of those: The number of fast-food outlets per capita grew more than fivefold from 1970 to 2004. Or look at gambling. In 1970 casinos were legal only in Nevada, and New Hampshire, New Jersey and New York were the only states with lotteries. Today every state but Utah and Hawaii has legalized casinos or lotteries or both. And the Internet entices gamblers at all hours with offshore “virtual” casinos.

Then, to complicate matters, our views about indulgence have also changed. Once upon a time you were supposed to defer gratification until you were dead, when you would be rewarded in the afterlife. That started to seem too long a wait for most of us, and over time our attitudes toward consumption, borrowing and fulfillment shifted.

LG: Is self-control easier for some people than others?

DA: First, let’s be clear on what we mean by self-control. I don’t mean being a good girl and eating your spinach. In my book, I focus on desires. We all have these, but we prefer some desires to others. A guy might want to sleep with a co-worker, for example, but he also wants to keep his job, not hurt his wife and stay out of divorce court. Chances are, he prefers the latter desires and they will be the ones that prevail. Self-control, to me, means behaving in accord with those preferred desires for yourself. And yes, research shows that some people are definitely better at this than others: Women are better than men, older people better than younger. Kids are the worst; the part of their brains that handles the so-called “executive functions” isn’t even fully formed, which helps explain the behavior of adolescents. And some people do seem to be more “addictive” by nature, and often have forebears who are likewise—which isn’t to say that addicts don’t have choices or respond to incentives. They do.

LG: So how can we get more self-control?

DA: Well, some of it, for better or worse, appears to be hereditary. But some is clearly learned, and there is evidence that practice helps. In other words, working at delaying gratification can build up this particular muscle.

LG: Are there tricks you learned in researching the book that you think are helpful in, say, sticking to a diet or saving money?

DA:  The short answer is that, to control yourself, you have to control your environment. So if you want to avoid certain tempting foods, keep them out of the house and away from you. Rely on family and friends. Use a strategy called “precommitment”: If you want to save more, for example, have money deducted from your paycheck for your 401(K). That way, the decision to save is out of your hands.

LG: There are a lot of political implications to the issues you raise. What is the role of government here? Would you say that one important role it plays is to protect us from our own self-destructive tendencies—to, for example, require us to save for our retirements via Social Security taxes because we’re incapable of doing it ourselves?

DA: Social Security is a good example of a kind of collective precommitment. Why should we need this, after all? We could save for ourselves and that would be that. But most people support the system because, I think, they don’t trust themselves to put away money for their own far-off retirement. So it’s better to give Uncle Sam the power to forcibly take the money for this purpose. We find his promise to pay us later more credible than the idea that we could do it without him.

Personally, I’m somewhat torn here. It’s clear that most of us need some help, but I’d be more comfortable if we did things for ourselves. I think the government should protect us from ourselves only when we want it to, as we clearly do in the case of Social Security.

LG: Well, I think most of us would like to believe we exercise free will in the choices we make. Or is that just an illusion?

DA:  Ah, free will. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest we don’t have much of it. Yet when you ask me that question I certainly seem to answer freely. At the very least, we have a kind of “free won’t,” by which I mean we have the ability to inhibit our impulses. Ultimately I’m with the philosopher William James on this. “My first act of free will,” he wrote, “is to believe in it.”