I am posting this on the morning of January 1st. The band U2 proclaimed “nothing changes” on this day. For most, that will be true.
It used to be that people hyped up the changes they wanted to make starting on this day, but now I’m seeing a shift. Rather than getting encouragement, I see a lot of people ragging on New Year’s resolutions. It’s true, we are entering “detox season.” It’s the time of starvation diets and dragging your hungover ass to the gym for your first session with Attila the Trainer. It’s also the time of white-knuckle attempts at battling some addiction or bad behavior and feeling like a failure for not being able to persevere.
It’s all some serious bullshit. Sustainable change is rarely built upon a model of constant suffering, which is why approximately 80% of New Year’s resolutions will have gone by the wayside before January comes to an end. People are right to be critical.
Nevertheless, we are, all of us, changing all the time. Not just on this day, but on all days. If you look back a decade, it’s a fair bet you’re a different person now than you were then. Go back twenty years and you’re probably substantially different.
Change happens regardless of what we do. It’s when we attempt to direct it in a way that isn’t in line with who we really are that strife is created and failure is a near certainty. When it comes to behavior change, we’re often told to take baby steps. Be a tortoise, not a hare. Slow and steady wins this race.
And that’s generally wise advice, if you’re focusing strictly on behaviors.
Have you seen the movie Shrek?
There is a scene where he says to Donkey, “Ogres are like onions.” Because layers. Well, people are like onions too. When you cut them, there can be crying. Wait, no. I mean, people have layers too.
What I’m referring to is social psychologist Milton Rokeach’s “Model of Personality.”
The out layer represents behaviors: our actions, emotions, and thoughts. Go down a layer and you have beliefs. One further and it’s attitudes. Then it’s values, and finally, and that most core level, the self: your identity of who you really are.
In 2016, researchers from the University of Oregon published a study in Psychological Inquiry about the “identity-value model” of self-regulation. The authors theorize that “behaviors that are connected to identity are more likely to be enacted because they hold greater subjective value.” They examined the dieter’s dilemma, investigating how people struggle with eating healthfully, and how self-control is about two opposing processes: impulsively eat the doughnut, for example, because it’s yummy, or strive to regulate that behavior and resist the treat in favor of vegetables?
When someone’s identity is one that places high value on healthy eating, there isn’t much struggle. It’s not a matter of exerting willpower; it’s acting in a way that is in direct relevance to who they are.
But much has made of the need for willpower. How it’s a limited resource that we must carefully parse out lest we run out by day’s end and dive face first into a box of Krispy Kremes. I speak of research into “ego depletion,” in which willpower is considered finite. Regular exertions of will to complete tasks or resist certain foods were thought to fatigue the mind; people run out of mental energy to adhere to their new lifestyle.
As an example, imagine a bowl of radishes sits in front of you. How hard is it to resist eating them? How much brainpower does it require to not indulge? Cue people saying, “But I love radishes!” Yeah, whatever. Not the point, because most people don’t love them.
Now imagine that same bowl filled with chocolate.
In 1998, a study of sixty-seven people was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology describing an individual’s willpower as a “limited resource” that is drained throughout the day each time it is utilized. Researchers took hungry people and told them they were to participate in a study about taste preferences. Faced with two food choices, chocolate treats or radishes, one group was told they had to “resist” the radishes and could only consume the chocolate, whereas the other group had the much more challenging task of not eating the treats that were right before them in favor of the radishes. Afterward, study participants were asked to work on an unsolvable puzzle.
They should have titled the study “Sometimes Scientists Are Dicks.”
Those asked to abstain from chocolate gave up on the puzzle faster than those who ate chocolate but no radishes. Researchers concluded the stress of resisting chocolate drained the participants’ willpower, causing them to give up on the puzzle sooner. Like when you have a shit day at work and are more likely to hit the liquor store on the way home instead of the gym.
This willpower study received international attention and launched further research into ego depletion, leading scientists to recommend that people interested in behavior change not alter too many things at once or too drastically, else they risk depleting their willpower and sabotaging their efforts. Quitting smoking and drinking, switching to healthier eating, and adopting an exercise regimen all at once was a recipe for failure, whereas making small, incremental steps toward adopting new habits was encouraged.
But these recommendations, it turns out, were based on bad assumptions.
Researchers from Curtin University in Australia conducted a meta-analysis of two dozen studies of ego depletion involving over two thousand subjects. Published in 2016 in Perspectives on Psychological Science, the study found no evidence of ego depletion; the entire concept was deemed faulty. I spoke with Professor Michael Inzlicht, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, who has long been a critic of the concept of ego depletion, to learn more about why we shouldn’t consider willpower as a tank that can be emptied.
“There are many potential reasons why self-control might wane over time,” Inzlicht said. He dismissed the idea of will as a resource, countering that people’s preferences change over time.
How did ego depletion gain such traction? It turns out that the problem lay with how studies prior to the twenty-first century were designed. When more modern statistical analysis is used, Inzlicht explained, the effect of ego depletion disappears. “At the very best, it’s a small effect.”
There has been a revolution in how research is conducted, and psychology is in the middle of it. Numerous old findings are turning out to not be as robust as once thought. Professor Inzlicht explained it wasn’t specific to the radish-vs.-chocolate study, but to all studies of the era. “Everyone was doing it,” he said.
Doing what? Hunting for a significant effect via “P-hacking.” The “P” stands for “probability”; it involves dredging through the collected data to uncover a pattern that can be presented as statistically significant.
In 2017 there was feature published in The New York Times discussing this exact phenomenon in reference to Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy. She used the methods of the day to create an influential study on “power poses”—how certain standing and sitting positions influence people’s feeling of power. Publication launched her career to new heights, but her failure to replicate her findings using new methods of analysis brought out the critics. Fellow academics “savaged” her work and career. Power posing was referred to as “inconsequential” for helping people “do better in life.”
Add “publication bias” to this, which Inzlicht explained this way: “What if I told you twenty studies were run and only the three with significant findings were published?” If no effect is shown, they don’t get published. “They are hidden in the proverbial file drawer.”
Inzlicht says willpower isn’t a tank but has more to do with desire and drive. “Sometimes those desires change gradually; others, they turn on a dime.”
The turning of desire—that’s what an identity-value shift does. What once was difficult is now easy or even effortless. It’s not because willpower became abundant; it’s because values changed. “It calls for a radical shift in how we perceive self-control,” Inzlicht said.
The 2016 study of the identity-value model of self-control mentioned previously examined a number of more recent studies finding that what we imagine as ego depletion could be quickly eliminated via things such as pondering positive outcomes, taking a break to watch TV, experiencing a positive mood change, meditating, or even praying.
And a 2017 study of 258 people by researchers at the University of Zurich put another nail in the coffin. It found that merely discussing the idea of ego depletion creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, because people are prone to suggestibility. In one study, participants who were told that a mentally challenging task would lead to ego depletion became fatigued afterward. Conversely, those who were told the same challenging task would energize them for subsequent tasks were indeed energized.
Can you pump up your willpower like a muscle? Can you train it to be stronger? The research isn’t promising. A 2016 meta-analysis published in Health Psychology Review examined training people to resist temptations of things such as alcohol and snack food, and found it only worked in the short term. More disconcerting is a study published the same year in the Journal of Experimental Psychology that put 174 participants through six weeks of self-control training. The authors stated their study “rectified several methodological problems with previous studies and observed that self-control training did not improve self-control.”
What is the secret of those who are successful at self-control?
Inzlicht coauthored a 2017 study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science that examined “effortful self-control” in the face of temptation. He told me of how the researchers asked people about short-term goals, then followed up three months later to ascertain their success. “The biggest contributor to meeting or showing progress toward their goals was whether they encountered temptation.” If they experienced a desire that conflicted with their goals (cake vs. weight loss, Facebook vs. studying), effortful resisting of the desire made no difference. The ones who made progress were those who avoided being tempted in the first place.
A key aspect of avoiding temptation? Don’t feel it any longer. That comes via the shift in identity and values. If your new passion overrides distractions, they don’t distract you.
Sometimes it doesn’t even require a change in identity to make this shift, but a simple reframing of the self for generating situation-specific self-control. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research examined “empowered refusal” of temptation and discovered that those who used “I don’t” language (as in “I don’t eat chocolate cake”) were almost twice as successful at resisting temptation than those who used “I can’t” language. This ties back to identity and how we view ourselves. Those who shift their identity and values achieve a potentially limitless source of drive to pursue the behaviors aligning with those values and that identity.
What about those who don’t shift identities but power through with effortful exertion of self-control because they have “grit”? Such people exist, but grittiness may not be good for them. A 2015 study of 292 African American teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds published in Psychological and Cognitive Sciences discovered that those who were better at using self-control and had “the ability to resist temptations that interfere with long-term aspirations” suffered negative health consequences, such as increased stress responses and even premature aging of immune cells. This is in line with previous studies showing that while such enforced self-control improves psychosocial outcomes, it worsens cardiometabolic health. It’s far better, and easier, to remove feelings of temptation—whatever they may be—than to engage in continual resistance.
How is this actionable? Well, I wrote an entire book about that. In fact, much of what you just read has been adapted from this book that I have coming out on January 22 from St. Martin’s Press titled The Holy Sh!t Moment: How Lasting Change Can Happen in an Instant. (Links to purchase).
But the tl;dr is to spend less time worrying about exertion of will, about engaging in continual resistance and suffering and forcing yourself to do what you’d really rather not, and spend some quality time examining who you really are deep down. What are those values you hold dear? What is your real identity yearning to be set free and drive you and your life to greater heights? Which direction is your True North?
In so doing, don’t throw out the baby steps model to change, because it can be valuable to engage in some of that slow and steady behavior change to reveal such passion. “The Answer” is more likely to come to you while you’re out for a walk than surfing your phone from an easy chair.
And it’s something that might happen on New Year’s Day, or any other day.
HEY! Check out my new book The Holy Sh!t Moment, about the science of the life-changing epiphany. Learn more about it here.
James S. Fell, MA, MBA, has bylines in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, the Guardian, TIME Magazine, and many other publications. His blog has millions of readers and he is the author of two books: The Holy Sh!t Moment: How Lasting Change Can Happen in an Instant (St. Martin’s Press, 2019), and Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind (Random House Canada, 2014). Order them here.