Cass Sunstein: Fight inertia and keep New Year's resolutions

Many New Year's resolutions are about redemption. Maybe you aren't the sort of person you want to be. Maybe you aren't kind enough to others (strangers, co-workers, family members). Maybe you suffer from a self-control problem involving cigarettes, alcohol or gambling. Maybe you procrastinate; maybe you're impatient or impulsive. Maybe you haven't taken steps that would enable you to make your life better - with more time off from work, a vacation in a gorgeous setting or an adventure or two.

On New Year's Eve, you resolve to make a change. But within a month, you're back to your normal patterns. How come?


Some clues can be found in a study with the revealing title "Everyone Believes in Redemption." The paper, by the economists Robert Letzler, of the Federal Trade Commission, and Joshua Tasoff, of Claremont Graduate University, doesn't involve New Year's resolutions. But it demonstrates that people suffer from both unrealistic optimism and inertia, which make it hard for them to carry out their plans.

Letzler and Tasoff gave the participants in their study an opportunity to earn $20 by redeeming a mail-in form. The subjects were instructed to print out a "certification page," which they were required to include with their form.


Participants were also asked to predict the likelihood that they would send in the form. As it happens, their responses were wildly optimistic. Actual redemption rates ended up being about 50 percent lower than what the participants predicted. In other words, they resolved to mail in the form, and they fully expected to do so - but ultimately they didn't. (Similar patterns are observed in the real world; each year, American consumers fail to mail in at least $1 billion in potential rebates.)

Can anything be done to help? Letzler and Tasoff tried three different interventions.

First, they informed people about the low redemption rates of earlier participants. But this information, helpful though it would seem, had no effect on people's optimism about what they would themselves do or on the likelihood that they would mail in the form.

Second, Letzler and Tasoff sent people emails to remind them of the approaching deadline for redemption. The researchers had reason to think that this intervention would be effective, because reminders have been found to work in (for example) getting people to pay their bills and to come to doctor appointments. But in the case of the rebates, reminders had no effect. People ignored them.

Finally, Letzler and Tasoff eliminated the requirement that subjects print out and submit a certification page as part of the redemption process. This was the only intervention that worked. By making things easier, they increased redemption rates by about 20 percent.

The important lesson here is that simplification brought people's predictions closer in line with reality by changing their behavior, not their beliefs. Once the process became a bit easier, people became more likely to take action and thus to make good on their predictions.

When people are unrealistically optimistic about what they will do, Letzler and Tasoff conclude, it is because they don't pay enough attention to the costs and burdens involved. When they resolve to act, and when they make inaccurate predictions about their own behavior, the benefits of action are salient, but the costs are not.

Consider New Year's resolutions in this light. It's easy to resolve to be more altruistic, to exercise greater self-control, to be more patient or to enhance one's life, but it's costly to do these things. Suppose that you aren't always as generous and kind as you would like to be, or that you have trouble resisting temptation, or that you don't give yourself enough time off. If so, it's probably because it's costly to do those things, and it's hard to anticipate those costs and burdens in advance.


The best remedy is to find ways to reduce such costs and burdens. If you want to be more altruistic, you might set up automatic monthly gifts to your favorite charity. If you want to increase your self-control, you might alter your environment so that you run into temptations less often - for example, by keeping less food in your refrigerator. If you want to have an adventure or two, you might accompany your New Year's resolution with a purchase, today or tomorrow, of a plane ticket.

Months or even weeks after New Year's, many people learn that optimism and inertia are a potent combination. To overcome them, it helps to make redemption automatic - or at least a lot simpler.