The University of Texas at Austin
  • Make smarter, positive resolutions

    By Art Markman
    Published: Dec. 21, 2011

    Arthur Markman is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing in the Department of Psychology. His research examines the way people think and reason, from the effects of motivation on learning and performance, analogical reasoning and categorization to decision-making and creativity. Markman also is an expert consultant to the Dr. Phil show and writes the blog “Ulterior Motives” for Psychology Today magazine. In his forthcoming book “Smart Thinking,” (Perigee Books, January 2012) Markman distills for readers the information he accumulated over six years of teaching Procter & Gamble employees how to become more effective problem solvers and his decades of cognitive psychological research.

    Art Markman

    Psychologist Art Markman Photo: Marsha Miller


    As we approach a new year, it is common for us to take stock of our lives and think about things that we’d like to do differently in the coming year. Often, the resolutions we think about are negative resolutions. That is, we have some behavior that we currently perform that we’d like to stop. It might be quitting smoking, or eating less junk food, stopping drinking or drugs, or even cutting back on bad language.

    Unfortunately, if we are thinking about these kinds of resolutions, it is probably not for the first time. Mark Twain is supposed to have said that quitting smoking is one of the easiest things he ever did, he has done it thousands of times.

    There are many reasons why stopping these behaviors are difficult, and I have written about some of these difficulties on my blog. Here, I want to focus on the form of the resolution itself.

    I called these resolutions “negative resolutions” because they focus on a behavior to be stopped. Often, this behavior is already a habit, and so it is strongly driven by the environment. That is, parts of your environment already suggest the behavior to you. Just drinking a cup of coffee may promote the desire to smoke. Walking through the kitchen may increase the urge to eat.

    In order to try to stop a behavior, you have to think about that behavior consciously. That is, if you want to cut down on your eating, you must exert effort to think about what you are doing. To watch yourself to make sure that you don’t eat too much.

    Research by Peter Herman, Janet Polivy and their colleagues suggests that people who are actively trying to diet become “restrained eaters.” Restrained eaters are people who are thinking about their diet and about restricting the amount of food they eat. The problem with being a restrained eater is that it creates a paradox. You want to stop eating, so you have to think about your eating behavior. The more you think about eating, the more that concepts related to food and eating stay active. As I have discussed in previous posts, when a concept is active, it is easier for people to perform actions relating to that concept.

    So, focusing on reducing your eating can actually make it harder for you to eat less. The same is true for any negative resolution. Thinking about not smoking or drinking or cursing will activate related concepts, which will make it easier to smoke, drink or curse.

    In the end, the problem lies with the resolution itself. You cannot replace something with nothing. The habit system will still have connections between the environment and your behavior, and so it will continue to suggest the behavior you are trying to stop. As a result, you will have to continue thinking about stopping the behavior.

    So, rather than making negative resolutions, make positive ones. Do not resolve to stop smoking, resolve to start exercising. If you really start an exercise program, your smoking will get in the way, and you will have a reason to stop. Do not resolve to eat less, resolve to eat differently. Cut red meat out of your diet, and start eating other foods. With the number of really good meat substitutes on the market now, it is easy to replace high-fat foods with low-fat foods without sacrificing taste.

    If you focus your energies on positive resolutions, then you will not suffer the paradox of negative resolutions. If you start exercising, you will not be consciously thinking about smoking. You will have removed one source of failure in your resolutions.

    So in the coming year, think positive!

    This story originally appeared on Art Markman’s blog.

    • Quote 2
      George Best, D.C. said on March 14, 2012 at 5:01 p.m.
      As a healthcare practitioner who deals with a lot of chronic pain patients, I have seen this paradox at work in how people recover (or not) from chronic pain syndromes. Those who focus on being able to do more and on getting healthier typically do much better than the people who desperately search for a way of getting rid of the pain. The more people allow their pain to dominate their thoughts, the more pain they experience, and the more disabled they tend to become.
    • Quote 2
      Pat said on March 13, 2012 at 3:58 p.m.
      "Do not resolve to eat less, resolve to eat differently." Absolutely! There are so many healthier foods out there that are just as great-tasting and filling as some of the ones less good for you. With the internet you can find a billion recipes and books about healthier meals. You can still indulge now and then - my downfall is potato chips - but transitioning to an overall better diet obviously has its benefits.
    • Quote 2
      Madhushan said on March 3, 2012 at 11:27 a.m.
      Awesome article. I haven't given a thought about the paradox concept you mentioned. There is a friend I have, who tries very hard to stop eating, and I have observed that no matter how hard he tries, he never reduces the amount he intakes. I will make sure I tell him about the paradox, so that instead of thinking to stop eating more, he will start thinking about jogging more or swimming more.
    • Quote 2
      Margaret said on Feb. 3, 2012 at 10:12 a.m.
      Fascinating article. l completely concur with you when it comes to negative resolutions because such resolutions tend to create the very thing we object to. So, as one focuses on reducing one's eating, it is very true that this can actually make it harder for one to eat less. Thank for making me see weight loss from such a different perspective.
    • Quote 2
      james said on Jan. 26, 2012 at 2:52 p.m.
      Awesome article. I never really thought about resolutions like that until you said it. I just embarked on a weight loss challenge where I want to lose 45 pounds in 45 days and believe me it has not been easy. Like you stated, I constantly think about my diet and cutting back on bad foods that I almost go nuts. I am going to try and concentrate on my exercising program and hopefully that will help. Appreciate your help.
    • Quote 2
      A. Hunter said on Jan. 18, 2012 at 3:55 a.m.
      My personal experience is that is I have had little success in changing my habits when focusing on stopping or limiting a behaviour. I've done much better when redirecting my attention towards a positive alternative.
    • Quote 2
      Herman said on Jan. 16, 2012 at 2:13 p.m.
      You are spot on with this. Especially when it comes to food. I've found that seeing food in terms of how it makes me feel has been a major motivator for me to eat better. When I see natural foods, I think about being healthy and having energy. When I see sweets and processed carbs I think about being fat and tired. It makes a big difference. I don't have to restrain myself from eating the bad food.
    • Quote 2
      Vidhu Shekhar Chaturvedi said on Jan. 5, 2012 at 4:22 p.m.
      Respected Dr. Markman, You are absolutely write in saying we can not replace something with nothing : sheer eradication of anything being so much difficult. I have personally experimented (even before reading your article) with 'exercising to replace smoking', and it is being proven very very successful.
    • Quote 2
      Frances Starling Boesch said on Jan. 1, 2012 at 9:38 a.m.
      Mr. Markman, You put it so appropriatly about negativism. N - negative O - only T - thoughts Simple word with so much power. Thank you for your words of encouragement. Frances
    • Quote 2
      Paulette Binyons Arancibia said on Jan. 1, 2012 at 8:01 a.m.
      Efectivamente pienso que pensar positivo crea una barrera a lo malo del exterior, ya que lo malo que viene del interior es como ser su propio enemigo
    • Quote 2
      Michael Turner said on Dec. 25, 2011 at 1:51 a.m.
      Dear Dr. Markman, Your article seems to suggest that our consciously-construed mandates (aka, "resolutions") are more valid in defining desirable behavior than the somewhat instinctual paradigm that has been implied by the referenced literature. This begs the question. Please advise, Michael J Turner University of Texas at Austin Class of 2013
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