How to Keep a New Year’s Resolution

Px2274c_thumb3 Peter Singer in Project Syndicate:

We are not yet far into 2010, but studies show that fewer than half of those who make New Year’s resolutions manage to keep them for as long as one month. What does this tell us about human nature, and our ability to live either prudently or ethically?

Part of the problem, of course, is that we make resolutions to do only things that we are not otherwise likely to do. Only an anorexic would resolve to eat ice cream at least once a week, and only a workaholic would resolve to spend more time in front of the television. So we use the occasion of the New Year to try to change behavior that may be the most difficult to change. That makes failure a distinct possibility.

Nevertheless, presumably we make resolutions because we have decided that it would be best to do whatever it is that we are resolving to do. But if we have already made that decision, why don’t we just do it? From Socrates onwards, that question has puzzled philosophers. In the Protagoras, one of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates says that no one chooses what they know to be bad. Hence choosing what is bad is a kind of error: people will do it only if they think that it is good. If we can teach people what is best, Socrates and Plato seem to have thought, they will do it. But that is a hard doctrine to swallow – much harder than eating the extra slice of cake that you know is not good for you.

Aristotle took a different view, one that fits better with our everyday experience of failing to do what we know to be best. Our reason may tell us what is best to do, he thought, but in a particular moment our reason may be overwhelmed by emotion or desire. Thus, the problem is not lack of knowledge, but the failure of our reason to master other, non-rational aspects of our nature.

That view is supported by recent scientific work showing that much of our behavior is based on very rapid, instinctive, emotionally based responses.