• Home
Is willpower enough to keep your New Year’s resolutions?

Is willpower enough to keep your New Year’s resolutions?

Happy New Year! We associate New Year's Eve with glasses champagne, fireworks at midnight, and a lot of happy new year wishes. And of course the renewed New Year’s resolutions. What do you want to change or achieve in 2019? Quit smoking? Lose some weight? Travel more, or is 2019 the year you will get engaged? I bet some of this year’s resolutions are the same as the ones from last year. But this year, you tell yourself, you have more willpower than last year to achieve your goals. Sounds familiar?

It seems hard to keep your new year’s resolutions. On January the first we are inspired to make a change, but a month later we see ourselves skipping the gym. It is difficult to let go of habits you have had for years. What makes it so complicated to form new habits and have the ‘strength’ to achieve your goals? Is willpower enough to change your behaviour?

I won’t, I will, I want

Willpower is the ability to resist immediate desires that are not in line with your long-term goals. It is a constant internal challenge to say ‘no’ when your whole body wants to say ‘yes’. That means that you may have to do things you dislike, but which are necessary to achieve your goal. Stay away from the cookie jar to lose weight, study a lot to get good grades, and work hard and save enough money to travel the world. To achieve these goals you need to continually remember what you truly want. What will you do, or won’t you do any longer to achieve your goals?

The willpower muscle

In psychological research, willpower is often compared to a muscle. You can make this willpower-muscle stronger by training it, but you can overuse it as well. The overuse of the ‘willpower-muscle’ is known as willpower-exhaustion. The ability to exert self-control and resist all temptations demands much cognitive energy. This draws the brain into a mental state called cognitive fatigue. System 1 drives our behaviour, which makes it a lot harder to slow down the mind and make rational decisions. Willpower exhaustion happens all the time and to everybody. It helps to keep your glucose level and energy level high. That is why it helps to take a break during Christmas shopping and have a cookie.

Willpower exercises

If we consider willpower a muscle, we can train this muscle to improve our willpower. That way it should be easy to keep your New Year’s resolutions this year. All you have to do is practice and train your self-control! Small and regular willpower challenges are an example of an exercise to train this muscle. You can place a cookie jar in a prominent place in your living room, but you are not allowed to take one. Frequent exposure to small challenges will slowly boost your willpower. And you will benefit from a stronger willpower muscle when you are faced with a much bigger challenge.

But even though we have trained this muscle for years, our resolutions often result in broken promises to ourselves. If you want to change your life effectively, willpower won’t get you there.

Why willpower doesn’t work

To understand why it is challenging to let willpower control your behaviour, you need to know how our behaviour is formed. We have explained about System 1 and System 2, the two different processes for decision-making. System 1 is automatic, fast processing, and operates in the subconscious mind. System 2 is the slower, conscious, and enables us to make rational decisions. That is why we often feel bad after we gave in to our immediate desires, the quick decisions made by System 1. System 2 rationalises the actions of System 1, focused on the longterm outcomes from the decisions.

A constant debate

The willpower to not succumb to your desires is a continuous conflict between your goal and the environment. System 1, driven by sensory stimuli and our emotions, wants to give in immediately to the desires. The willpower to not do so is a conscious process, which operates in System 2. System 2 always tries to override System 1, which demands a lot of cognitive energy. It is not possible to exert control over System 1 all the time. Thus, willpower may not be enough to keep your New Year’s resolutions. But changing your environment will.

The environment

When I ask you not to thinks about trains, you will notice that trains keep popping up in your mind. Even though trains is not something you think about on a regular basis, it is very hard to block trains from your thoughts right now. That is why it is not recommended to forbid your favourite foods from your diet. Constantly thinking about the sweets, makes you want it more. Your brain is nonstop occupied not paying attention to all sensory stimuli in the environment. That is too hard to maintain, which weakens the cognitive capacity to resists temptations.

Don’t get distracted

When you are distracted or stressed, you are more likely to give in to temptations that mislead you from your goals to keep your New Year’s resolutions. When your mind is pre-occupied, you lose a significant amount of willpower. That is why it is convenient to remove all unnecessary stuff from your desk and put your phone on silent when you have to concentrate on work. Constant pop-ups from incoming messages diminishes your focus on your work. Without the environmental distractions, you can create conditions that make your success inevitable.

Avoid a choice-overload

Imagine how much time you can save in the morning when you only have to choose between two sweaters, instead of twelve. Choice-overload results in cognitive fatigue and thus weakens our ability to suppress our desires. Remove everything you don’t need and diminish your choices. That will change your default option. The default option is the pre-set choice of behaviour or action that always will be followed unless another decision is consciously made. When the default option is in line with your long-term goals, you won’t automatically do something else.

Get it done!

Things can changing faster than you thought possible. The small things matter to make the options you desire more accessible. What barriers do you have to your goals? The psychological approach of the willpower muscle doesn’t focus on changing the environment. It is focused on how to increase your efforts to overcome the temptations in the surroundings.

To effectively change your behaviour you have to shut down this internal conflict between your goals and the environment. It is not enough to change all environmental settings. You have to change your wishes and desires and be genuinely convinced that these are the goals you want to achieve. If something is considered a temptation, it means that you did not align your subconscious desires with your long-term goal.

If you’re genuinely committed to your New Year’s resolution, this is what you will do automatically. All the decisions you make will be in favour of this achievement. An environment that is designed to do nothing but change your behaviour does not include temptations.

Your final takeaways

Unfortunately, there is no step-by-step method to keep your New Year’s resolutions. But you can take this knowledge in your own life. Make small adjustments, and keep the following takeaways in mind:

  • Meditate! Meditation helps you to eliminate distractions from your mind. Research has shown that meditation increases the grey matter in your brain. The grey matter is related to self-control and rational thinking.
  • Replace the ‘I won’t’ with ‘I will’. Instead of thinking ‘I won’t eat sweets and cookies’ you can replace this thought by ‘I will eat more vegetables’. We prefer to be focused on what we have instead of what we lack.
  • Prevent yourself from cognitive fatigue. Refuel your brain with some glucose at the time.
  • Notice what your emotional state is when working on your goal. Build associations between the unpleasant tasks and positive outcomes. It helps to do unpleasant tasks in a happy environment. When you do your studying at your favourite coffee place with a delicious cappuccino, it may not be so bad after all.
  • To keep your New Year’s resolutions this year, you must be genuinely committed and convinced that this is what you want. Make sure to create an environment that makes every decision in favour of your new behaviour. Want to change? Then change your environment. And let’s make sure that your resolutions for 2020 are different than this year!
Thinking fast? Slow down.

Thinking fast? Slow down.

Sooner or later, it becomes clear to us that we humans experience trouble with decision-making from time to time. Although most of us think that we know what is best for us, we consistently and systematically make the same irrational errors.

Look around your house for example. There are probably many unnecessary items laying around, that seemed essential when you bought them. Yet, you never use them. They are only taking up space, but you don’t find yourself throwing them out. Why do we behave this way?

The godfather of behavioural economics

Daniel Kahneman, Nobel-prize winning pioneer in human decision-making and godfather of behavioural economics, showed us what happens. Many errors we make in judging situations and making decisions arise from using heuristics and biases in the decision-making process.

To understand the motivation behind the decisions that we make in our personal and professional life, psychologists and neuroscientist often rely on the division between two systems of thought. Kahneman describes these systems as System 1 and System 2.

He differentiates thinking System 1, where the brain acts fast, intuitive and without conscious effort, from System 2, a slower, analytical, and more deliberate way of thinking.

The stubborn hero and his sceptical associate

You could view System 1 as a stubborn hero, that does not think twice before acting. But, when push comes to shove, he is there to save the day. System 2 would, in its place, be his sceptical associate, not as fast or inexhaustible as our hero, but often second-guessing his decisions and correcting them at critical moments. While the stubborn hero is always active, his sceptical associate only steps in when necessary to conserve his energy. Very lazy indeed.

What you see is all there is

System 1 relies on our associative memory. It uses connections between earlier seen words, images, actions, and emotions to form a conclusion and make quick decisions. Even when there is not enough information available to make a rational decision.

System 1 operates via the ‘what you see is all there is’ principle. The only goal is to form a coherent story from the available information at that particular time that motivates a decision. Coherent, however, does not always mean reliable.

To save precious energy, our brain tends to spend as little energy as possible when solving problems and making decisions. However, without analytic and systematic System 2 thinking, we make predictably irrational mistakes.

Both systems have their pros and cons, but when they work together, they form the foundation of our actions, beliefs and decisions. Unfortunately, the collaboration of these systems in your brain does not always run smoothly. If you think your brain is immune to these kinds of errors, just tag along.

Example 1: Attribute substitution

A baseball bat and a ball cost 1.10 euros together. The bat costs a euro more than the ball. So how much does the ball cost?

If you guessed the ball costs 10 cents, your intuitive system 1 thinking is tricking you. If the ball would cost 10 cents, and the baseball bat costs 1.00 euro more than the ball, the bat would cost 1.10. That means that the bat (1.10) and ball (0.10) together would cost you 1.20 euros. The correct answer is that the ball costs 5 cents.

So, what went wrong here? The problem is, although it is relatively easy, harder than it initially looks. Your fast, intuitive System 1 thinking mistook this for a more manageable problem. It substituted “the bat costs 1.00 euro more than the ball” with “the bat costs 1.00 euro”, without you being conscious of it. That is known as attribute substitution.

Example 2: Anchoring

If I were to ask if the average price of German cars was around 100.000 euros, you would find this way too high. However, the high number I mentioned focusses your brain on expensive cars (Audi, BMW).

If I asked you if the average price of the same cars was around 10.000 euros, you would say that this price is too low. But the low-price number would focus your brain on cheaper cars (Volkswagen, Opel).

If you had to come up with an estimate of the average price of German cars by yourself, your answer would differ significantly, depending on whether I provided you with the high anchor (100.00 euros) or the low anchor (10.00).

This cognitive bias is known as anchoring and is used in negations of, for example, salary or the value of an object.

Who is in charge?

Because of our steadily running System 1 and our lazy System 2, almost no one is resilient to cognitive biases and heuristics when making decisions. Most of us identify ourselves with System 2, but a vast amount of research shows that System 1 is in charge 95% of the time.

It remains up to us to take time for an analytic approach when making decisions, so that we would make fewer mistakes in the process. That is why, especially when taking risks and making important decisions, it is better to think slow.

In applied neuromarketing System 1 & 2 thinking is used to explain consumer behaviour and identify useful persuasion tactics. Understanding how people are likely to act allows you to guide behaviour subtly.

With over 200 cognitive biases and every context being unique it can be hard to get started. That’s why we write you this applied neuromarketing content. You can find many informative pieces and effective tactics in our applied neuromarketing blog.

For those who want to step up their game, we have an intensive 1-day Neuromarketing Crash Course. Here you’ll learn all the fundamental knowledge and get practical by applying them instantly to your case.

Photo by Steven Libralon on Unsplash

Paradox of choice: why less is more!

Paradox of choice: why less is more!

It’s Saturday evening and you’re planning to have a romantic date with your Netflix account. Just the two of you, no one else interrupting, enjoying a movie to the fullest. You start browsing through what Netflix has to offer. There the first option of choice arises: are you in the mood for a happy-ending love story or Brad Pitt’s Moneyball? Or maybe a movie is not at all what you’re looking for. You start looking at the endless list of series and documentaries. At some point, you get overwhelmed by the amount of choice and after 30 minutes you’re still at the point of wandering around in the Netflix catalogue. This is a perfect example of what Barry Schwartz calls the Paradox of Choice, the idea that more choice leads to more psychological stress and less happy feelings.

Too much choice?

The paradox of choice explains that consumers experience a lot of stress because of all the choices they can make. One example of why this stress is caused is that people often begin to reconsider the trade-off of that decision in terms of missed opportunities. "Is the movie that I’m watching now giving me the satisfaction that I’m looking for? With one click, I can still switch to that other one." This reconsideration in return will affect the amount of satisfaction we experience from the decision. From a neuromarketing perspective, the brain will not focus on what it has, but on what it does not have.

Paradox of choice and the sweet spot

Does the whole idea of a paradox mean that the best thing to do is give no choice at all? No. Schwartz discovered a so-called sweet spot in the paradox of choice. The point where the number of choices is most effective on our subjective well being. To give you an idea, here’s a visual display of the paradox of choice and the sweet spot.

Paradox of choice and the Sweet Spot
The Sweet Spot

Applying this knowledge to consumer choice shows that a larger assortment of products like jam, chocolate or even pension plans results in less motivation to actually buy the product. The trick is now to find that sweet-spot: where you offer not too little, but also not too much.

What about eCommerce?

It’s interesting to know whether this paradox also applies to online marketing, webshops and websites. You would expect that online shopping would be able to ‘handle more options’ because of the filters you can apply. If you’re looking for a particular product you can use these filters to narrow down the enormous amount of choices that a webshop like eBay has to offer.

According to tech startup Bestmatch, this is indeed the case. They argue that reducing the number of choices you offer will have three positive outcomes for the customer:

  1. improving the quality of decision making
  2. making the process of buying a product less stressful
  3. more satisfaction with the decision after the purchase

Why your sales will increase by offering fewer products

This shows that for an online platform like a webshop, you need to create an environment that offers enough, but not too many options. The key here is to create filters that are easy to use. The whole idea of not too much choice is also applicable to online marketing: these need to be kept simple, logic but still informative. A website with an overload of menus and buttons will lead to more psychological distress and confusion. Too many pictures or colours will distract the brain from what really matters. Less is more is the key to success.