What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Want to keep your New Year’s resolutions? Stop living in the present and focus on the future

Read the Full Transcript

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    To help ring in 2015, tonight, we start a new weekly feature on the broadcast, Making Sense Thursday, a regular report on business, finance and related matters.

    Tonight, economics correspondent Paul Solman takes a look at how to fulfill those New Year's resolutions.

  • WOMAN:

    I really want to learn how to knit.

  • WOMAN:

    Stay better organized. I'm going to create a schedule.

  • MAN:

    Try to combat procrastination and really try to focus a little more.

  • MAN:

    Save more money.

  • MAN:

    Actually going to work harder. That's — that's pretty much it.

  • WOMAN:

    And how are you going to do that?

  • MAN:

    Ooh. Umm…

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    So New Year's resolutions, people make them, and just about as often, they break them. Why?

    WALTER MISCHEL, Author, "The Marshmallow Test": Because they're formulated in a way that is a general good intention, but it's not a plan.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    If there is a man with a plan for leading us not into temptation, it's psychologist Walter Mischel, author of "The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control" and, by mastering it, working harder, saving more, key factors in economic success.

    The book is based on half-a-century of research by Mischel and others that began with a simple experiment, now among the most famous and replicated in the history of psychology.

  • WOMAN:

    There's a marshmallow. You can either wait and I will bring you back another one, so you can have two, or you can eat it now.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Mischel ran this self-control experiment on some 650 preschoolers at Stanford University in the late '60s and early '70s. Most gobbled up the puffy confection, but one-third abstained long enough to get another.

  • WOMAN:

    You get two.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And delaying gratification at even the earliest ages has been shown to correlate powerfully or else equal with prosperity later in life. Mischel found that the successful self-deniers had a pretty simple strategy.

  • WALTER MISCHEL:

    Which is, they transform an impossibly difficult situation into a relatively easy one by distracting themselves, by turning around.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    By putting the marshmallow farther away.

  • WALTER MISCHEL:

    Or I can do it by exploring my nasal cavities or my ear canals and toying with the product. The fancy word for it now is executive control. I'm able to use my prefrontal cortex, my cool brain, not my hot emotional system. I am able to use my cool brain in order to have strategies that allow me to make this miserable, effortful waiting effortless and easy.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Or not so effortless and easy.

  • CHILD:

    Ten minutes. Ten minutes. Ten minutes. Ten minutes. Ten minutes. Oh, 10 minutes.

  • WALTER MISCHEL:

    I think some people find it much easier to exert control than others. But no matter whether one is reasonably good at this overall or easily bad at this overall, it can be enormously improved.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    So how do exert executive control as an adult, facing vices more inviting than marshmallows when childish distractions may no longer work.

    So if I have a New Year's resolution to drink a little less than I do, what do I do?

  • WALTER MISCHEL:

    What you need is a plan that says, at the end of the day, 5:00 is the time that I am likely to have a drink.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Right.

  • WALTER MISCHEL:

    OK? I have to have a substitute activity at that time, so there will be an alternative and it will be very, very practiced.

    I mean, to give you an example from my own experience, a chocolate mousse is generally irresistible for me.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    His self-control strategy?

  • WALTER MISCHEL:

    I will order the fruit salad. And that's a specific rehearsed plan, so before the guy can tempt me with the mousse, I'm already ordering the fruit salad.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And just to be safe:

  • WALTER MISCHEL:

    The idea that the chocolate mousse before it was brought out of the restaurant kitchen may have had a cockroach having a little breakfast on it first.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Behavioral economist Dean Karlan has pioneered a different approach.

  • DEAN KARLAN, Yale University:

    I go to a fancy restaurant with some friends, I know that after I have had my wine, the dessert menu comes, I will order the dessert, even if I swear I wasn't going to up front. So I will turn to my friend and I will say if — fine, yes, let's get the wine. But if I eat dessert, then I owe you $100.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Karlan first became involved with such so-called commitment contracts in grad school, researching them, even making one with a friend who, like Karlan, wanted to lose weight and keep it off.

  • DEAN KARLAN:

    The contract was for $10,000. So the point was to make it for a lot of money, enough that it would be really, really painful to write that check.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    How much did you lose?

  • DEAN KARLAN:

    I lost 48 points.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Growing out of that experience, Karlan co-founded a Web site called StickK, in part for its distinctly non-carrot-like approach to helping people reach their goals.

  • DEAN KARLAN:

    If you put monetary stakes up, then you can have it so that your money goes to, say, a friend who is going to hold you accountable. Or one of the more popular options is the anti-charity. Now the money goes to something that you hate. The NRA foundation is one of the most popular causes that people don't like and choose on this site.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    The National Rifle Association.

  • DEAN KARLAN:

    The National Rifle Association. We also have super PACs both left and right, and those are very popular because they kind of capture all the issues all in one bundle. Keep in mind that there would have to be some reporting of the failure.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Then the money goes to some truly odious cause? I mean odious to me.

  • DEAN KARLAN:

    Odious to you. That's the key part.

    And the other part that also is very popular and very effective for a lot of people is not the monetary part, but is the public aspect of it.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    So you would have to admit that you failed?

  • DEAN KARLAN:

    On Facebook or Twitter?

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    But why do our resolutions so often fail? Because humans like you and me and Walter Mischel, both of us former smokers, temporally discount, valuing immediate rewards much more than those in the future.

  • WALTER MISCHEL:

    So, if it's not now, it's essentially never, because the future, for example, the cancer that I could get if I kept smoking, is probabilistic. It's distant. We don't know for sure. And so it might as well not be there, unless I do something that makes the faraway consequence immediate and vivid.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Hence the graphic warnings on Canadian cigarettes. A similar image 50 years ago got Mischel, a three-packs-a-day addict, to quit practically cold turkey.

  • WALTER MISCHEL:

    That's a man with metastasized lung cancer and those little green X-marks are for where the radiation goes. That was the beginning of my ending my smoking, because the image of me on a gurney with little green X-marks is very, very vivid. And it makes the distant probabilistic consequence something that is immediate and now, and changes the cigarette from a huge temptation to a small dose of poison.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    In the end, then:

  • WALTER MISCHEL:

    The most powerful way to have control is by transforming what the stimulus means.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    But, of course, everything follows for making that resolution in the first place.

  • MAN:

    It starts the conversation about trying to change something.

  • WALTER MISCHEL:

    You have to really want to, because you are taking that delayed goal, to live longer, to live healthier, to have retirement funds when you need them, rather than to not have them.

    It is what we want and how we think about what we want that controls and regulates what we're able to do.

    Paul Solman, reporting for the "PBS NewsHour," from, hopefully, the land of self-control.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest