It’s the New Year and that means social media is buzzing with motivational statements about transformation. It’s the perfect time to renovate your life. Right or wrong?Although we may be primed to make major changes in January, does that mean we are any more likely to sustain those changes than if we had made them at other times of the year? Not really.
Despite the fact that approximately 40% of Americans make a New Year’s resolution, only about 9% achieve their goals . This success rate is relatively stable in the context of behavior change. Ask people to eat healthier, exercise, or sleep more and only about 16% will meet their goal .
So what differentiates successful people from those who are unsuccessful? As a Neuroscientist, I’ll walk you through the fact (and fiction) about scientific insights of how the brain works to support or prevent behavior change.
The gap between our intentions and actions: We may have the purest intentions when it comes to changing our behavior, but intentions do not accurately predict future behavior. Research shows that variability in achieving our intended behavior is dependent on unconscious processes . Using an fMRI, neural activity was measured while people watched messages about using sunscreen. By measuring brain responses in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), researchers were able to accurately predict whether or not participants would use more sunscreen in the coming week. Predictions based on brain activity were more accurate than the participants’ own self-reported intentions for behavior change.
FACT: Unconscious processes play an important role in behavior change
FICTION: Motivation is all you need to successfully change behavior
Although we may have a strong motivation to change our behavior, there are unconscious processes that work against our intentions. The fix? Use introspective techniques to develop self-awareness of our unconscious psychological processes.
Don’t worry, it’s not as hard as it sounds! There are many ways we can build self-awareness. Here are some questions I like to ask myself when I’m planning to change my behavior, which provide insight into my unconscious processes.
What is my motivation for changing my behavior? Is it strong? If the answer is yes, great! If it’s no, then we need to find a way to strengthen our motivation. Example: Trying to eat healthier to rebalance your blood sugar? Maybe that’s not a strong motivation because blood sugar is an abstract concept. Try linking your desired behavior change to something that’s emotionally salient: I’m trying to eat healthier because I want to be actively involved in my child’s life, now and for the next 40+ years. See the difference?
How is my new behavior related to my self-image? It’s important that the new behavior is related to our current self-image. Otherwise, we won’t succeed. For example, if I want to run a marathon how is this consistent with the way I see myself? I used to be an athlete in high school, so this works to my advantage. I work out consistently, so this also helps. I already see myself as someone who is physically active. But is that enough? I also need to know about my barriers to change.
What are some barriers related to my self-image that may sabotage my behavior change? Although I view myself as an athlete, I don’t view myself as a marathon runner. Trying to think of myself in this way is too big of a change. I should start with something small, like thinking of myself as a fitness runner. I’ll commit to shorter runs a few times a week, slowly working up endurance. Maybe I’ll participate in some smaller races to slowly build up my self-image as a runner. Over time, running will become a part of who I am and the transition to a marathon runner will feel more natural. By making changes incrementally, I’m increasing the changes that I’ll meet my goal.
Changing our behavior is a big task. With the help of science, however, you can optimize the chances of success.
 Statistic Brain. (January 2017). New Years Resolution Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.statisticbrain.com/new-years-resolution-statistics/
 American Psychological Association. (March 2010). The key to making lasting lifestyle and behavioral changes: Is it will or skill? Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/lifestyle-behavior.aspx
 Falk EB, Berkman ET, Mann T, Harrison B, Lieberman MD. (2010). Predicting persuasion-induced behavior change from the brain. Journal of Neuroscience, 30(25) 8421-8424.