Everyday Ethics

Everyday Ethics

New Years Resolutions: Are We Lying to Ourselves?

I know it’s become popular, but I’ve become suspect of using traditional goal-setting strategies and business process techniques to change personal habits and pursue a meaningful life. While I can admit that there’s something invigorating–even exciting–about casting a new vision, writing that list of goals and objectives and getting a fresh start, I also know that sooner or later we all come face to face with the gap between our intentions and our ability to follow through.

Skimming dozens of blog posts, status updates and Tweets over the past week, there were lots of interesting discussions about following dreams, pursuing personal change and launching exciting new projects in 2012. Unfortunately, there was far less discussion about what it takes for well-intentioned individuals to translate these admirable aspirations to sustained and approaches over the long haul. Instead, there seemed to be an unspoken assumption that many New Year’s goals would be abandoned before winter turned to spring.

So what about you? Did you make any resolutions today? Did you consider the relationship between what you are setting out to do and how you might get there? What are the ethics of a commitment (or lack of commitment) to a new endeavor?







Comments read comments(3)
post a comment
Arne Hallam

posted January 2, 2012 at 12:17 pm

So this long, but a very good article from the New York Times.

A Nobel Winner Can Help You Keep Your Resolutions

Published: December 29, 2005

WHY make New Year’s resolutions? If you need to start a diet or get up earlier in the morning, why wait until Jan. 1? Why not do it today? New Year’s resolutions do not make any rational sense.

While perfectly logical, that analysis misses the point. New Year’s resolutions help people cope with some of the most difficult conflicts human beings face.

So argues one of the economics profession’s greatest experts on conflict, Thomas C. Schelling, who shared this year’s Nobel in economic science for, in the words of the citation, “having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis.”

Professor Schelling, now a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, is famous for his work on conflicts between nation-states, particularly those with nuclear weapons.

One of his best-known ideas is “precommitment.” One party in a conflict, he demonstrated, can often strengthen its strategic position by cutting off some of its options to make its threats more credible. An army that burns its bridges, making retreat impossible, is a classic military example.

Others involve strong diplomatic commitments. By passing a law saying the United States will defend Taiwan if it is attacked, for example, Congress gives future administrations less flexibility in dealing with a crisis, but the threat makes an attack less likely.

In the early 1980’s, Professor Schelling applied similar analysis to individuals’ internal struggles, seeking to develop what he called “strategic egonomics, consciously coping with one’s own behavior, especially one’s conscious behavior.”

The problem, he suggested, is that pretty much everybody suffers from a split personality. One self desperately wants to lose weight or quit smoking or run two miles a day or get up early to work. The other wants dessert or a cigarette, hates exercise or loves sleep.

Both selves are equally valid, and equally rational about pursuing their desires. But they do not exist at the same time.

“What I have in mind is an act or decision that a person takes decisively at some particular point in time, about which the person’s preferences differ from what they were earlier, when the prospect was contemplated but the decision was still in the future,” he wrote in “Ethics, Law and the Exercise of Self-Command,” (available online at “If the person could make the final decision about that action at the earlier time, precluding a later change in mind, he would make a different choice from what he knows will be his choice on that later occasion.”

New Year’s resolutions help the earlier self overrule the later one by raising the cost of straying. “More is threatened by failure than just the substance of the resolution: one’s personal constitution is violated, confidence demoralized, and the whole year spoiled. At least one can try to make it so,” wrote Professor Schelling in “The Intimate Contest for Self-Command,” a 1980 essay in his book “Choice and Consequence: Perspectives of an Errant Economist” (Harvard University Press, 1984).

As many a broken resolution demonstrates, those consequences often are not a big enough deterrent. To make success more likely, Professor Schelling’s work suggests a few additional strategies.

One is a mild precommitment: not keeping sweets or tobacco in the house, for instance. At the very least, this step forces you to delay indulgence until you can go to the store – and allows time to recover your resolve.

Another approach is to use bright-line rules, which make it harder to cheat through clever reinterpretation. That may explain why many people find it easier to eliminate whole categories of food, like carbohydrates, rather than simply to cut back on calories.

“Just as it may be easier to ban nuclear weapons from the battlefield in toto than through carefully graduated specifications on their use, zero is a more enforceable limit on cigarettes or chewing gum than some flexible quantitative ration,” Professor Schelling wrote.

He once resolved to smoke “only after the ‘evening meal.’ ” That rule “led to tortured reasoning Thanksgiving afternoon, or flying west across the Atlantic with perpetual afternoon, and it stimulated lots of token sandwiches on leaving the ski slopes to drive home.”

For those who cannot face the prospect of an eternity without a favorite indulgence, there is the strategy of delay. Instead of resolving to go without, you give yourself permission to smoke or drink or eat chocolate cake again within a specified time – say, three hours – after deciding to go off the wagon. Like having to go out to buy supplies, this strategy allows time once again to resolve not to indulge.

A twist lets the newly resolute self reset the clock at any time. “I have spoken to distance runners who, as exhaustion approaches, pick their stopping places a mile in advance, with the rule that any place more distant can be picked at any time before they reach the current target, and once picked even by the most fleeting resolve it becomes controlling,” Professor Schelling wrote, wryly noting that it is not always obvious which self should be in control. “I think I know whose side I’m on, and I’m sorry for him.”

A slight variation allows a third “self” to mediate between the two in conflict by enforcing a prearranged deal: the chance to sleep late at the price of skipping TV at night, for instance, or a new dress in exchange for losing 10 pounds.

This system works, however, only on two conditions. First, the incentives have to be strong enough. Then, wrote Professor Schelling, “the ‘someone’ who wants to turn off his alarm with his eyes closed has to believe that another ‘somebody’ will later have the fortitude to administer the punishment or deny the reward, when ‘they’ are really all the same person.”

Virginia Postrel ( is the author of “The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture and Consciousness.”

report abuse

    Joan Ball

    posted January 2, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    Thanks for this. This question of multiple selves negotiating behavior is a personal interest of mine. Referred to by many in recovery circles as “the committee”, I find this banter and its outcomes to be fascinating.

    report abuse

Cynthia Googe

posted March 4, 2012 at 5:23 am

I resolve to resign. I have a chronic illness. It is ugly.
It hurts. It repulsing. It will not kill me…none the less,
I die a little more each day.

report abuse

Post a Comment

By submitting these comments, I agree to the terms of service, rules of conduct and privacy policy (the "agreements"). I understand and agree that any content I post is licensed to and may be used by in accordance with the agreements.

Previous Posts

More Blogs To Enjoy!
Thank you for visiting Everyday Ethics. This blog is no longer being updated. Please enjoy the archives. Here are some other blogs you may also enjoy: Idol Chatter Most Recent Inspiration blog post Happy Reading! ...

posted 3:53:05pm Sep. 07, 2012 | read full post »

Coding Ethics...
Internet activist and New York Times bestselling author of The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, Eli Pariser is concerned that information gatekeepers of the past (i.e. editors/reporters) have been replaced by algorithms that ...

posted 2:49:15pm Jan. 22, 2012 | read full post »

Can Ethical Companies Do Business With Unethical Leaders?
Coca-cola has been accused of "propping up a notorious Swaziland dictator" whose human rights abuses and bilking of the national wealth has long been criticized by human rights activists. According to Guardian UK reporter David Smith**, ...

posted 3:49:39pm Jan. 02, 2012 | read full post »

Is Craigslist Who We Really Are?
Raise your hand if you're familiar with  Chances are, there's one that serves your community.  And it's extremely handy for job listings, housing, dating, selling your old crap or buying new old crap.Really, it's ...

posted 9:15:55am Dec. 18, 2009 | read full post »

How Do You Complain - Gracefully?
So, I'm of the ethos that if you don't like your meal, you send it back. It's how I was raised, and I don't have any sense of shame about that. When you pay for something, you should get your money's worth. HOWEVER, I also believe there's a ...

posted 1:29:56pm Dec. 17, 2009 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.