Overcoming "the Politician Effect": How to Make New Year’s Resolutions Stick

Here’s an interesting finding: one third of online donations are made in the month of December and 22% of all gifts occur in the last two days of the year. This end-of-the-year donation rush happens because of New Year’s resolutions to do social good, tax breaks, and most importantly, because people want to help others. Yet, when asked whether they’re only giving because it’s the end of the year, most people say they’ll continue donating throughout the year. Why don’t people follow through with their resolutions to keep giving to charity? And this isn’t just a phenomenon that relates to charity - people don’t follow through with their New Year’s resolution’s to exercise and a ton of other things. So, how can you help people to stick with things they say they want to do?

A common response is that you can’t get people to follow through with things: some people follow through, others don’t.  Those who don’t follow through with their promises are just unmotivated or hypocrites. 

Take education. Students often write to me asking to get involved with our research. They schedule to meet with me, express their enthusiasm, and tell me they want to learn how to build technologies that get people to be heathier, predict disease outbreaks, or predict and stop cyberbullying. But when a project director assigns them something to complete, some of these students suddenly disappear. They stop responding to emails, stop showing up to meetings, and seem like they aren’t interested. What flakes or hypocrites, right? Not necessarily.

Social psychological research on attitude-behavior consistency explains that people are more likely to follow through with things they say that are specific, rather than general. For example, in a study on organ donation, people were asked whether they think positively or negatively about organ donation and then given a form allowing them to register to donate their organs. Surprisingly, the people who said they supported it weren’t that much more likely to register to donate than those were not supportive. However, people were also asked more specifically whether they would be willing to donate. Compared to those who said they weren’t likely to donate, those who said they were willing to donate were much more likely to actually donate.

This “Politician Effect,” as I call it, explains how people can appear like they aren’t following through with their plans when it might be because the communication was too vague. It can explain why some students in the scenario above don’t follow through with their plans of being involved in our research projects. Although they said they were generally interested, they might not have said they were interested in completing a specific project.

The lesson is, asking people the right questions, and communicating with the right words, can sometimes make the difference between a person seeming like a hypocrite or a saint. It can also mean the difference between them following through with their resolutions in the New Year and beyond. While it’s true that sometimes people don’t follow through with things even when they’re clearly described, we find that overcoming the Politician Effect helps a lot more people to follow through with their plans. For other strategies we’ve found on how to get people to keep doing things, look here.

Whether you’re an organization looking to get donors beyond the end-of-year donation rush, a teacher or manager helping students or employees to follow through on their education, or a friend trying to help another friend stick with their New Year’s resolution to be healthier, think about the Politician Effect. You’ll be more likely to help people follow through with their goals if you help them plan goals that are specific and use precise words. As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—‘tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

Sean Young PhD

UCLA Center for Digital Behavior, Medical Plaza, Los Angeles, CA, 90024, United States

Sean Young, PhD, MS is the Executive Director of the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior. I'm a scientist, innovator, and UCLA medical school professor. I study the science behind human digital behavior (see digitalbehavior.ucla.edu for more info about this field of research).I also assemble technology teams and solutions to improve UCLA Family Medicine patient care. For more info or to contact me: www.SeanYoungPhD.com