New year resolutions, and why we always fail?

For starters, I wish you all a happy 2015. 

By Bryant Arnold Published: 30-Dec-12 Courtesy from

By Bryant Arnold. Published: 30-Dec-12. Courtesy from


Although it is a mandatory thing to say, it always makes me doubt about my own intentions, a bit- First of all, how can I possibly hope to cover your entire next year with one saying? It is a bit over-ambitious, isn’t it? And still I wish all of you a happy entire 2015, sleeping nights and Monday mornings included. Could it be that I merely wish this because social convention dictates I do so? Perhaps I don’t even wish for it, I just repeat the words I learnt as a child. Kind of like American’s saying good-day to each other by saying ‘How are you doing?‘. They don’t expect any of their receivers to roll out an epistle about their current situation and constitution. They expect ‘fine/great, and you?‘. And so, when I wished you a happy 2015, your mind probably automatically thought ‘thank you, and the same to you too!‘ (unless you really hate me, but I hope you don’t).



This is a click-whirr effect (an apt term coined by social psychology guru Robert Cialdini). Click-whirr is when a stimulus or ‘trigger’ from the outside world stimulates behaviour from ourselves. The “Happy 2015”-click activates the “you too” whirr. Other example: a baby smiling activates a smile on your own face (unless you are truly an abdominal evil character, but apart from psychopaths nearly everyone else does smile back when babies give us their brightest leers).


Click-whirr underlies many nudging things in life. In fact, it underlines so much behaviour that it is hardly possible to spend a day without it. In any case, such a day would be very tiring, as you would have to think about all the automatic behaviours you would normally perform. Instead of waiting for a red light and walking or driving at a green one, you’d have to take some time deliberating about the meaning of the colours, and the necessity for you to follow them. What are the consequences if you do, what if you do not? Upon entering the office, instead of taking your morning coffee, you have to deliberate about the health aspects, environmental aspects and possibly economical considerations of this. No click-whirr (green equals go, entering office means coffee machine visit) would make life very very difficult and cumbersome.


This reliance on it, however, also makes us particularly vulnerable when we want to change behaviour. Suppose you did indeed think long and hard, over Christmas break, about the detrimental effects of coffee (believe me, there are none!). As a new years resolution you decided to cut down on coffee (insanity, if you ask me, but I hear a lot of folk around me attempting it). Your first two days at home you do fine, but then you go back to work and as soon as you pass the machine, before you know it you’re tapping a cup of blissful black splendour called coffee. Dang! Pardon my French, but you just succumbed to the click-whirr effect of the situation. The environment has always nudged you, guided you, supported you, towards taking the cup, so much that the behavioural path of seeing the machine, and drinking a cup, is ingrained in your subconscious memory.


The good news, you cannot help yourself, and moreover, you are in good company, nearly no one can! The bad news: Click-whirr reactions are not only vital for our existence, by nature they are very hard to change or break. The only obvious way of breaking them is removing the click. If you are dead set on stopping your coffee consumption, consider giving up your job…


Ways out of this conundrum?

Well, there is always the changing of your own mind, as Ida beautifully described in the previous post. If our thoughts and behaviour are inconsistent (not compatible with one another), we either change our behaviour or our thoughts. Well, after having tapped your morning coffee, there is (hopefully) no way in hell you are going to throw it away. That leaves you with changing your minds. After all, one cup might not be too bad, right? Just ‘cutting back’ would be fine, perhaps as much as one less cup a day?

The effectiveness of such changing of your mind can be debated. Sometimes it might work, sometimes it might not. In the case of coffee, by all means, drink it by the barrels and forget all your resolutions at once. But if you want to be more physically active, stop smoking (or worse things) or pay more attention to your cats and dogs, then perhaps only changing your mind is not the way to go.


How then? 

As we cannot easily change the whirr, we must change the click. Short of throwing the coffee machine out (or pouring printing ink in the water reservoir) there are better ways of doing so. Each situation of course requires individual attention, but in essence it is the same thing: changing the click. And here lies the problem.


The problem and the solution

The problem with New Year Resolutions is that they are nearly always focused on the whirr. Logical, since the whirr is our own behaviour, and ought not our own behaviour be under our influence? Well… as said above, no, not really. What we must change instead, is the click. Take a different approach to your office room, that does not pass along the coffee machine. Sell the car. Throw away all your scigarettes ash trays, lighters and anything else that reminds you of smoking. Do not linger in smoke areas and avoid going to friends or occasions where others do and will offer. Change the environment, do not try to change your behaviour.

Instead of having the resolution: quit smoking, your resolution should be: get rid of all smoking reminders. Kill the click, and you kill the whirr.


Now, if you are a pleased reader after this, please honour me with your very own resolution(s) and how you can rephrase them. If only I knew a right click-word to whirr you all into giving responses. You’ll have to do with my sincere request instead, and a pretty smiley 🙂



Source: Cialdini, R. (1984). Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, New York: Quill


Another blog post (unfortunately only in German) covering similar stuff can be found here

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