Self-control, Self-efficacy, and New Year's Resolutions


I'm not one to make New Year's resolutions.

mean, sure, I could take my pick of popular New Year's resolutions; I could decide, on the first day of the new year, that this year, I'll start exercising more and eating better, or that I'll spend more time with my family and friends, or that I'll learn a new skill. And if I chose to make resolutions, I'd be far from alone--a 2008 survey on found that 66% of the 2000+ adults polled had made resolutions at some point (though only 17% managed to keep them).

Making resolutions: It's about self-control

The question Anirban Mukhopadhyay of the Hong Kong University and Gita Venkatarmani Johar of the Graduate School of Business at Columbia University asked is this: What determines how many goals a person will set, and how successful a person will be at achieving those goals? They performed a few studies in 2005 to look at the relationship between self-control, goal setting, and goal achievement. They suggested that what you believe about self-control affects the goals you set and achieve [PDF].

In the paper, "self-control" is used to mean a sense of willpower. Mukhopadhyay & Venkatarmani discuss various lay theories of self-control, noting that the amount of self-control a person has can be seen as either an inherently limited or unlimited resource, and that this resource can be seen either as malleable or as fixed (the amount of self-control a person has can change over time, or not). An important premise to note here is the idea that the probability of choosing a goal or making a resolution increases if a person thinks that goal can be attained. So if you think you'll be able to achieve a goal, you're more likely to set it. Combine this with theories of self-control, and in general, if you believe you have unlimited stores of self-control, you'll set a larger number of goals. If you believe self-control is malleable but limited, you'll set fewer goals.

Mukhopadhyay & Venkatarmani also discuss self-efficacy: belief in one's capabilities, the perceived ability to carry out a desired action. They propose that people with high self-efficacy--people who believe that failure is the result of insufficient effort, and thus exhibit increased commitment and persistence--will achieve more of their goals than people with low self-efficacy, who tend to view failure as the result of deficient ability, and thus may simply give up.

The studies

In the first study, 85 participants (all college students) each read one of four passages presenting lay theories of self-control. Each passage contained two paragraphs; the first discussed self-control either as limited or as unlimited, and the second discussed self-control as either malleable or fixed. The participants then answered questions about their belief in each of two theories presented, followed by a second questionnaire to assess motivation, in which they listed all their current goals.

The study was testing whether a belief in unlimited, malleable self-control would result in most resolutions, and indeed, this is what was found. The experimenters had some concerns about participants' natural beliefs in relation to the passages they read, however, so in study two, the order of the two measures (lay theories and motivation/goal listing) was varied. Data from 130 new participants revealed that, as hypothesized, if the motivation & goals questionnaire were assessed first, then among the people who believed self-control is malleable, those who also believed self-control to be unlimited (vs. limited) set more goals. When lay theories were assessed first, this result reversed. The people who believed that self-control is fixed were unaffected by order.

The third study moved on to examine goal achievement, adding a measure to look at self-efficacy. The study had two sessions, in November then February. In the first session , the 159 participants read passages about lay theories (much like in study one, but with longer passages to strengthen the manipulation), listed the resolutions they were planning on making at New Years, rated how disappointed they would be if they failed to keep their resolutions, and filled out individual difference measures (which included a self-efficacy scale). Only 86 participants successfully returned for the second session, during which they indicated how much success they had had at keeping their resolutions.

What does this mean for your resolutions?

The resolutions made by participants across all conditions were qualitatively similar (take a look at any list of popular New Year's resolutions, and you'll see the majority of the goals). As shown in the first two studies, more goals were set by people who believe self-control is unlimited and malleable than by any other people--that is, if you expect more success, you may increase the difficulty and number of tasks that you set for yourself. Self-efficacy did not have a significant effect on goal-setting.

As far as success goes, only the interaction between lay theory and self-efficacy was significant. If participants believed in limited self-control and were low in self-efficacy, they tended to give up more often, failing to achieve their goals. But if participants believed in unlimited self-control, self-efficacy had no effect; participants achieved just as many goals regardless, and people who set more resolutions were marginally more likely to succeed.

Mukhopadhyay & Venkatarmani realize that their research does not directly look at the relationship between lay theories of self-control and beliefs about one's own amount of self-control and self-efficacy, and propose this as an area for future study. But in general, lay theories about self-control can determine how much success you'll expect (and thus, how many goals you'll set), and self-efficacy beliefs can determine how much success you'll actually have.


Mukhopadhyay, A. & Johar, G.V. (2005). Where There Is a Will, Is There a Way? Effects of Lay Theories of Self-Control on Setting and Keeping Resolutions. Journal of Consumer Research, 31, 779-786 [PDF]

Saturday, January 2, 2010 - tags: goals science


  • said: Reply

    Ooh, thank you for that article! I’d always wondered whether one could find empirical support for how a belief in determinism influences folks’ ability to surmount obstacles and accomplish goals. That seems to fall into the low self-efficacy category, no? Fascinating!

Comments are closed.