The Psychology of Why Most New Year’s Resolutions Fail

Year after year, thousands of people all over the world have the same experience.

High levels of motivation in January, followed by a temporary change in behaviour, soon followed by a drop-in motivation and then a reversion back to old habits. (With some added self-loathing now thrown into the mix.)

Indeed, a 2016 study found that over 80% of New Year’s Resolutions fail by the second week in February, and recent psychological research indicates that motivation is only effective for short term behaviour change, and if we want to make changes that last, a different approach is required.

So, if a lack of motivation isn’t behind the high failure rate, what is?

In this post, we’ll explore the underlying psychology of why most resolutions fail, then introduce a potential solution to the problem – one based on our evolutionary past, which if properly understood, can empower you to make long term behaviour changes, in a sustainable way.


The Divided Mind

The Happiness Hypothesis - Jonathan Haidt

In the ‘Happiness Hypothesis’, one of the world’s leading social psychologists, Jonathan Haidt argues that the key to understanding why our best laid plans for self-improvement often fail, is to understand that the human mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict.

‘To understand the most important ideas in psychology, you need to understand how the mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict. We assume that there is one person in each body, but in some ways we are each more like a committee whose members have been thrown together to do a job, but who often find themselves working at cross purposes.’ 

So, are our minds really divided?

And could this provide a clue as to why so many New Year’s Resolutions fail?

To answer this question, the best place to start is by examining our evolutionary past.


‘Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.’ Theodosius Dobzhansky

The brain you’re reading this with has been evolving for the past 600 million years.

For the vast majority of that time, it’s main purpose was simply to keep us alive, and to respond automatically to threats and opportunities in the environment. About three million years ago, automatic systems in brains had gotten so sophisticated that they allowed birds to navigate using star positions, ants to cooperate to fight wars, and early humans to begin developing tools. Many of these creatures had systems of communication, but none had developed language.


It is unclear when exactly it happened, but scientists estimate the new manual part of your brain responsible for language and rational thought (the neocortex), only began developing between 2 million and 40,000 years ago.

In other words, this new part of our brain, has only been around for a very, very short period of time, and is a lot less evolved (and much less powerful), than the older limbic system, or automatic part of the brain.

Further, we now know that the neocortex, although good at long term planning and making new associations, has very little power to cause behaviour. The limbic (automatic) system, however, includes all the parts of the brain that do cause behaviour. It’s also responsible for making us feel pain and pleasure, triggering survival behaviours and causes the release of feel good hormones like dopamine.

Understanding this division increases our self-awareness, and is the first step towards making long term changes.

Next, we need a new, more accurate way to think about the brain.


Re-thinking the Brain

Often the surroundings of our culture help inform the metaphors we use to think about the world.

Plato, Freud and the Buddha, lived in worlds filled with domesticated animals, so they used metaphors like charioteers, wild horses and elephants to describe the human mind.

Nowadays, we live in a world of computers, data and information processing, so we think of our minds like computers that act rationally and make decisions based on logic.

The Motivation Myth Debunked - Computer Brain

Haidt argues that this common assumption is a major error, is at the root cause of why we find change so difficult.

Instead, he reasons that the older ‘domesticated animal’ metaphors are a far more accurate way to describe the mind.

In particular, Haidt likes to think of the brain like a ‘rider on an elephant.’

 ‘The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning – the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 per cent of mental processes – the ones that occur outside of awareness but actually govern most of our behaviour.’


 The Motivation Myth Debunked - The Rider and the Elephant

The rider is the conscious, planning, rational neocortex. It sets goals, makes new year’s resolutions and decides to improve as a person. The elephant is the automatic, and emotional limbic system that governs most of our behaviour. We’ve all experienced the power of the elephant during those moments we look back on we’re not particularly proud of; when we’ve overeaten, slept in, skipped the gym, etc.

Because most us are unaware that the inner elephant exists, and have a view of ourselves as purely rational, we don’t account for the most important (and powerful) part of our brains when setting New Year’s Resolutions – the emotional limbic system that actually governs behaviour.

And this leads us to relying on motivation, self-discipline and willpower to make changes.

But if we take this approach, sooner or later, our unhappy inner elephant rebels against the tyrannical rider, and soon we find ourselves back to our old ways – wondering where it all went wrong.

The Motivation Myth Debunked - Elephant Falling


Knowing this, once you have decided on your resolutions, it’s critical to design an approach that gets ‘the rider and the elephant’ working together. Otherwise, you’re like a rider who wants to go one way, sitting on top of a huge elephant determined to go the other.

There’s only going to be one winner; and it isn’t the rider.


Contrary to popular opinion, most resolutions don’t fail because of a lack of motivation.

They fail because of a basic misunderstanding about the human mind.

Because we live in an age of information, we only identify ourselves with the newer rational part of our brain – the neocortex, and forget about the older, automatic and emotional limbic system that governs most of our behaviour.

However, by understanding this division, and using the ‘rider and the elephant’ metaphor, we can account for both sides when making our plans for self-improvement.

By doing so, we can take a more compassionate, and sustainable approach to behaviour change – one that can get the rider and the elephant working together.

And when this occurs, change happens effortlessly.


If you are interested in learning more about behavioural psychology, you might be interested in our upcoming Scientific Behaviour Change: Ancient Wisdom & Modern Psychology event at the University of London.

It’ll be a full day of lectures from the UK’s leading clinical psychologists, academics and mental health practitioners on how to use evidence based approaches from clinical psychology to make long term behavioural changes, in a sustainable way.

For more information and tickets, please click here.

2018-05-16T13:46:39+00:00 January 17th, 2018|Blog|

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