LBS Professor Looks at Why New Year’s Resolutions So Often Fail |

LBS Professor Looks at Why New Year’s Resolutions So Often Fail

By Tim Dhoul

Updated August 15, 2016 Updated August 15, 2016

Do your New Year’s resolutions for 2016 include cementing your interest in studying an MBA at one of the world’s leading business schools?

If so you might want to heed the cautionary tale spun by Madan Pillutla, a professor in organizational behavior at London Business School (LBS), in an opinion piece for City A.M. Not only are your New Year’s Resolutions likely to fail because of their grandiosity, he argues, but they could also do you more harm than good:

“Beware the delusionary promise of the ‘fresh start’. Remember that not making a resolution might lead to a healthier and happier life than making one,” says the London Business School professor, ominously.

London Business School outlines the ‘what the hell’ effect

Pillutla’s reasoning is that failing to meet resolution targets can result in overindulgence, something referred to as the ‘what the hell’ effect, especially if those targets are over-ambitious. The London Business School professor illustrates this effect, coined by psychologists some 20 years ago, by citing the classic example of the gym. He argues that setting a target to hit the gym five times a week and then failing to go at all by the middle of the week could well result in many writing off the week altogether in the hope of making a ‘fresh start’ the following week. Whereas, Pillutla adds, a person without such a target is likely to go to the gym whenever they feel motivated to do so:

“Ironically, the New Year’s resolution of going to the gym five times a week leads to worse outcomes than if we had never made the resolution in the first place.”

How many New Year’s resolutions fail? Estimates vary, but the Washington Post worked out that roughly a quarter of people give up within the first week, and research suggests that more than half tend to have reneged on their own deal by the year’s midpoint.

Unfortunately, unlike Kelis, the London Business School professor reckons that as many as 60% of people fall for the same trick twice by making the very same resolution next year in spite of the overtly high failure rates and, in so doing, set themselves up for failure once more.

The planning fallacy behind New Year’s resolutions

“We are generally overly optimistic about our ability to meet goals, and also do not learn from past failures,” says the organizational behavior professor citing a 2010 study which expands on the planning fallacy, a phenomenon that was first proposed more than 30 years ago. “This means that we are more likely to make grand, rather than realistic resolutions.”

So, if you want to keep your New Year’s resolutions, they really ought to be grounded in realism and, in Pillutla’s mind, based on an assessment of your limitations and circumstances. Indeed, it has been argued that the most successful resolutions begin with a ‘contemplation phase’ well in advance of the start of a new year, so that attainable goals can be mulled over and giving a person time to build confidence in their abilities to achieve these goals. Given the level of due diligence required to find and apply to a top MBA program successfully, we’d hope that any resolutions made in this respect fall safely into this category!

This article was originally published in January 2016 . It was last updated in August 2016

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Tim is a writer with a background in consumer journalism and charity communications. He trained as a journalist in the UK and holds degrees in history (BA) and Latin American studies (MA).


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