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Want to stick to your New Year's resolutions? Keep them vague

December 30, 2010|By Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times
  • This Dec. 31, 2009, photo shows the crystal-paned ball on the roof of 1 Times Square in New York as it is raised shortly after 6 p.m. to signify the start of New Year's festivities in Times Square.
This Dec. 31, 2009, photo shows the crystal-paned ball on the roof of 1 Times… (Craig Ruttle / Associated…)

As the New Year approaches, so does the dread of coming up with new resolutions — or reviving old ones. Whether it’s losing weight, quitting smoking or putting more into savings, those personal vows of self-improvement are notoriously difficult to keep.

Rather than nailing down a number (lose 20 pounds, say, or save $100 more per month), it’s best to keep those goals a little vague if you want to succeed, says a new study to be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science.

The team — comprised of husband and wife Himanshu and Arul Mishra, assistant professors of marketing at the University of Utah, and Baba Shiv of Stanford University — designed experiments to look at improvements in mental acuity, physical strength and weight loss. They found in each case that when study participants were given a vague marker of improvement rather than a specific one, they showed a much higher rate of improvement.

For example, before the mental acuity test, participants were first informed that 1 gram of chocolate would theoretically enhance their performance. Those who were then given what appeared to be exactly 1 gram of cocoa improved their initial scores by 10.3 points. But those who were told they were given somewhere between 0.5 to 1.5 grams improved even more, by 13.7 points.

"The fuzzy boundaries afforded by vague information (e.g., a range) can actually help individuals perform better compared to information provided in a precise form," the authors write.

So you can trick yourself into improvement? Pretty much. The authors call the mental distortion "akin to placebo effects."

And when you look at many common New Year’s resolutions, it seems many of them could benefit from a little blurring around the edges.

Have any New Year’s resolutions in mind? Do you prefer to keep them precise or flexible? Post your thoughts below.

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