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New Year’s Resolutions Can Be Effective

Pioneer Gardens with students.

Jan. 10, 2013 — “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” according to an old proverb. But in practice, good intentions can have a positive effect.

Resolutions or formal commitments to better behavior can indeed be effective, say researchers at the University of Utah and in the Netherlands at Wageningen University and the University of Leiden, who collaborated on a meta-analysis on the effect of making commitments to pro-environmental behavior. Their study has been published in the January issue of the journal Environment and Behavior.

The researchers say that in the light of impending environmental degradation, policymakers would like to know how to motivate people toward pro-environmental behavior. Besides legislation and financial incentives, encouraging voluntary behavioral change is one way to accomplish this goal.

Various environmental studies have focused on one form of voluntary behavior change: asking people to make a commitment, formal or otherwise, to do something for a better environment. Examples of such commitments are attaining a more sustainable lifestyle, saving energy, using public transportation or separating household waste; and for farmers, participating in nature conservation.

“Commitments are very powerful ways of helping people change their behavior,” notes Carol Werner, professor of psychology at the University of Utah and second author on the paper.  “The more specific you are about the time, place, and circumstances of your commitment, the more successful you will be. Saying ‘I will walk in my neighborhood every morning at 7 a.m.’ is much more effective than saying ‘my New Year’s resolution is to get more exercise’.”

In the meta-analysis—believed to be the first of its type—researchers concluded that resolutions or formal commitments to pro-environmental behavior are indeed effective under certain conditions. Examples of such conditions are that the commitment must be written down and signed, or that commitments must be active, specific, must require effort and should not be too easy. In addition, fulfilling the commitment must require effort and must not be too easy.

Their study has shown that resolutions and formal commitments to change behavior are effective, but the researchers would like to clarify the underlying psychological mechanisms and recommend further research into this aspect. Such research could help policymakers design effective strategies for achieving pro-environmental behavior.


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