Lose weight, quit smoking and exercise regularly--these are America's top three New Year's resolutions, accounting for nearly three-fourths of the goals adults undertake Jan. 1, according to University of Scranton psychology professor John Norcross, PhD. "However, 'Get along with my mother-in-law' comes up more often than you would expect," he muses.

Since such resolutions are so common, they're often paid little mind by behavioral scientists. But, says Norcross, they can provide the perfect naturalistic setting for studying self-initiated behavior change. Indeed, by examining the characteristics of successful resolution-makers, psychologists may be able to discover, post-New Year's, the critical ingredients for effective behavior change--such as readiness to change, the use of behavioral strategies and successfully weathering temporary setbacks.

Norcross, for one, has long been using resolutions to study those ingredients. While lauding the efforts of millions of Americans to undertake new, healthy behaviors, he claims no specific interest in the annual ritual itself.

"It's a research convenience," says Norcross. "How many other times a year do nearly half of American adults undertake a behavior change program, starting on the same day?"

Action leads to change

Norcross says he hears about a variety of New Year's goals, but surprisingly he has found that the resolution goal attempted has no relationship to success. A 1998 study, published in the Journal of Substance Abuse (Vol. 1, No. 2), showed that dieters and those attempting to mend relationships enjoyed the same rates of success: 19 percent still stuck to their resolutions at the two-year mark.

In the study, Norcross and his colleagues tracked 200 resolution-making adults over a two-year period. He and his colleagues conducted interviews of the participants at weeks one, two and three, and again at months three and six. They also conducted one final interview two years from the initial resolution. During the interviews, participants reported on their success to date as well as the kinds of strategies they employed to keep resolutions going.

While type of resolution, age and gender did not predict success, the successful resolution-makers employed strategies such as stimulus control--for example, avoiding a smoky bar after resolving to quit smoking--and reinforcement, or behaviorally contingent rewards. Unsuccessful participants tended to use what Norcross terms "consciousness-raising strategies." Some, for example, might have taped pictures of tar-blackened lungs to their office walls in an effort to kick the smoking habit.

Additionally, Norcross found that self-efficacy, or the belief that one can effect and maintain change, also predicted resolution success. A concept developed and studied by Albert Bandura, PhD, of Stanford University, self-efficacy is a measure of personal belief in one's ability to succeed at something--in this case, to succeed at changing ingrained habits.

These findings fit well into the transtheoretical model (TTM) of behavior change developed in the early 1980s by Norcross and colleagues James Prochaska, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Rhode Island, and Carlo DiClemente, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. TTM, which has been widely adopted in health psychology, addiction research and behavior modification, conceptualizes habit-breaking as a process, rather than an event. Though there may be a last cigarette, the weeks or months leading up to that moment, as well as the daily decision to continue not smoking, are all integral parts of smoking cessation, theorizes Prochaska. Norcross's findings suggest that TTM applies to self-initiated behavior change as well as the clinical programs around which the theory developed.

A New Year's resolution, says Norcross, should signal the advent of the "action" stage of behavior change, a period of time characterized by overt lifestyle changes. In a follow-up to the 1998 study, published in the April 2002 Journal of Clinical Psychology (Vol. 58, No. 4), Norcross found that readiness to change, or how prepared a person is to enter the action stage of behavior change, to be the single best predictor of New Year's resolution success.

Participants who committed to effecting change by making a resolution were 10 times more likely to succeed than adults who were not yet ready to put plans into action. Principles of planning and action have also been illustrated through animal model research.

At the action stage, effective strategies include setting up systems to reward new behaviors and avoiding high-risk situations and then engaging in the target behavior, notes Norcross. Reversion to the "contemplation" stage of behavior change can be counterproductive, he says. Thinking about the health benefits of smoking cessation may not be a bad idea for people who have not yet made a commitment to quit smoking, but rumination does little to aid New Year's resolution-makers in sticking to new habits, suggests the study.

Easy to make, difficult to maintain

While contemplating health benefits may do little to aid resolution-makers, thinking constructively about setbacks could be key to maintaining new habits, according to University of Washington psychologist G. Alan Marlatt, PhD. Like Norcross, Marlatt studies New Year's resolution-makers to better understand self-initiated behavior change.

In two decades of research on this topic, Marlatt has found that people who resolve to quit smoking and avoid turning moments of weakness into full-on relapses are well-equipped to largely avoid taking up the habit again through the two-year mark.

In their attempts to quit smoking, most people smoke a cigarette or two along the way, says Marlatt. However, how new nonsmokers handle a lapse can make a huge difference in long-term success. Unsuccessful quitters, he says, tend to fall into the trap of dichotomous thinking, viewing a single smoked cigarette as evidence that they just do not have the willpower to persevere. A successful quitter, on the other hand, might search for situational causes leading to the momentary failure, such as the presence of a smoking friend, and avoid the risky situation in the future.

According to Marlatt, clinical psychologists can apply this finding to help their clients quit smoking or succeed at other New Year's resolutions.

"Most people quit smoking on their own," says Marlatt, who found that nearly 20 percent of the smokers he studied kicked their habit without professional help, a figure comparable to success rates of professionally designed programs. Psychologists can crib the techniques of these successful self-initiators to help people who are having more difficulty quitting, he says.

And while nearly 60 percent of people will drop their resolutions by the six-month mark, perhaps due to the persistence of old habits as well as reversion to earlier stages of behavior change, Norcross notes that those who make resolutions are still 10 times more likely to successfully change their behavior than those who do not.

"Resolutions deserve a little more respect," he says. "These people are taking on serious health problems, and many of them do succeed."

Further Reading

  • Bandura, A. (2002). Growing primacy of human agency in adaptation and change in the electronic era. European Psychologist, 7, 2-16.

  • Bandura, A., & Locke, E.A. (2003). Negative self-efficacy and goals revisited. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88, 87-99.

  • Marlatt, G.A, Curry, S., & Gordon, J.R. (1988). A longitudinal analysis of unaided smoking cessation. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56, 715-720.

  • Norcross, J.C., Mrykalo, M.S., & Blagys, M.D. (2002). Auld lang syne: Success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year's resolvers and nonresolvers. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58(4), 397-405.

  • Norcross, J.C., Ratzin, A.C., & Payne, D. (1989). Ringing in the new year: The change processes and reported outcomes of resolutions. Addictive Behaviors, 14(2), 205-212.

  • Prochaska, J.O., DiClemente, C.C., & Norcross, J.C. (1992). In search of how people change: Applications to addictive behaviors. American Psychologist, 47(1), 1102-1114.