What your New Year's Resolutions tell us about the way you think

It's a little late, but I kind of love these 2013 props made by PaperandPancakes on Etsy.

How did you write your New Year's resolutions? I don't mean, like, the tools you used — pencil and paper vs. tablet and bluetooth keyboard. What I'm talking about is how you put the goals into words — how you described what it was you wanted to do.

There's more than one way to make a resolution.

A couple of weeks ago, I ran across a great example of this in an old sociology paper from 1977. Researchers had collected New Year's resolutions from two groups of 6th graders — one of average middle class kids, and another group made up of Amish and Mennonites.

The researchers meant to study differences in gender. They were trying to figure out how different cultural backgrounds affected behavior that we tend to associate with one gender or another. But in that data, they noticed something odd, something they couldn't easily translate into statistics. The Amish kids' resolutions were different from those of the "normal" children.

Average kids in the 1970s wrote resolutions in a way that was pretty familiar to me, and probably to you. They focused on goals. One kid wanted to raise his rank in Boy Scouts. Another wanted to improve her swimming time by 10 seconds. Other kids wanted to get an "A" in a class, instead of a "B". There was nothing really surprising here.

And the Amish kids had similar goals in mind. The difference is that their resolutions weren't about the goals. They focused on the process of getting there. Instead of resolving to get a better grade, for instance, the Amish kids resolved to spend more time doing their math problems. What's more, the Amish kids made resolutions that were much more related to the experiences they were already familiar with. The middle class kids might resolve to climb a local mountain or learn to scuba dive. But the Amish kids's resolutions were focused on stuff like working faster at chores, so they all get done on time.

These might seem like relatively small differences, but when small differences so clearly form a delineation between two cultures, social scientists pay attention.

Hazel Markus is one of those people. She's a professor of behavioral sciences at Stanford and she told me that the 1977 study of New Year's resolutions reminded her of a study in a paper she published in 1999.

In that study, Markus and her team recruited two groups of people from the waiting areas at the San Francisco airport. The first group was made up of people who had been born in America, and who spoke English at home. The second group was made up of people who were born in Korea or China, they were citizens of those countries, and their primary language was Chinese or Korean. One at a time, each of these people was asked to fill out a survey. Afterwards, they were told that they could pick a pen as a thank-you gift, and were offered a selection to choose from.

Most of the pens were one color — orange, say — while one or two would be a different color — green. The participants made their choices individually, but there was a distinct pattern to the choices they made.

Seventy-four percent of the Americans chose the color that was least common. If there was one green pen and four orange, they went with the green. In the group from Korea and China, that tendency was completely reversed, with only twenty-four percent of them choosing the less-common color.

To Markus, this is representative of differences in culture. In multiple studies, she's seen evidence that Americans look favorably on uniqueness in a way that a lot of other cultures don't. Here, it's not just okay to be unique. Standing out is part of how we create public identities. It's actively encouraged.

That doesn't seem to be true in most East Asian cultures, she told me. There, people have more of a tendency to think about themselves and their identity in terms of relationships to other people and community. You want to be a part of something. You don't want to be the person who is trying too hard to be different.

Markus calls this a difference between individualism and collectivism. But she also said that you can't just simply draw a line and say Americans are like this and Chinese are like this. It's more complicated than that, because the preference for individualism varies a lot within American society.

And that brings us back to those Amish kids. Certain cultures within the US tend to be less individualistic, Markus said. And the Amish community is one of those.

"When you are aware of yourself as a part of a group, it's quite reasonable that you would see yourself in terms of tasks you're trying to accomplish," Markus said. "It's also reasonable that middle-class American kids would have more of a focus on outcomes. In their culture, you are supposed to become someone, do something, stand out."

But culture isn't just one thing, and it isn't static. What you learn about Amish kids in 1977 might not hold true today. What you learn about Amish kids and how they behave as a part of an Amish community might not hold true if those same kids spend a few years living outside that community.

You can see that effect in action in an article published last February in The Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, Eric Shiraev told me. He's a professor of psychology and international affairs at George Mason University and he wrote a textbook on cross-cultural psychology — the study of how our cultures affect the way we think and act.

The study he told me about compares the behavior of Facebook users to that of people using Renren, the Chinese equivalent of Facebook. The researchers found that users on Facebook tended toward posts that reflected individualism — posting about their own activities, posting pictures of themselves — while Renren users tended to display a more collectivist ethic. For them, social media was mostly about sharing. They shared links. They shared their friends' posts.

But the really interesting thing was that some people used both Facebook and Renren. "And when people switched platforms they changed their behavior," Shiraev said. "On Facebook, you become more individual. On Renren, you become more collectivist. The same person will do different things to adjust to different cultures."

In fact, Shiraev said, when you look at individuals the "cultural" differences that we see are often the ones that we expect to be there. We seek out the things in someone's personality that confirm our prior hypothesis about how they ought to behave because of where they're from. So if we think a Chinese person is going to be more collectivists and deferential to authority, we're more likely to notice the examples that verify that idea. Same thing for narcissistic, loud, boorish Americans.

But that doesn't mean it's totally useless to study cultural differences. While thinking that we know individuals because of their cultural background can lead us astray, we can actually find ourselves just as far off track if we don't pay attention to the different ways different cultures approach the same ideas.

Case in point: Happiness. In surveys of which countries are the happiest, Russia often ends up down at the bottom, Eric Shiraev said. But you can't assume every Russian you meet will be dour. And, maybe more importantly, you can't even assume that that survey really means Russians aren't happy, in general. That's because it's not culturally normal there to publicly admit to happiness.

"In Russia, it's supposed to be good luck to be grumpy and pessimistic," Shiraev said. "In the US when someone asks, 'How are you?', you say 'I'm fine'. In Russia, they expect you to say something nasty about yourself. It comes from a superstition against bragging."



  1. Two cultural sayings nicely illustrate this. In Western culture, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” in Japan, “The nail that stands up gets hammered down.”

    1. You misattribute an American phrase as being representative of “Western culture.” Consider “Tall Poppy Syndrome” (Canada, UK, and elsewhere), “Law of Jante” (Scandinavia), and Maaiveldcultuur (Netherlands).

      1. I’d be happy to consider them, if you’d care to share. As for misattribution, I wasn’t certain that it was strictly American, and opted for “Western” as a more general label. Again, if you’d care to share your superior knowledge of phrases that reflect cultural attitudes, we could all learn something.

        And just to clarify, yes, there are plenty of exceptions and sub-cultures – this is a massive generalization, as Maggie herself noted.

        1. I wasn’t trying to be opaque or superior. The Wikipedia pages for “The squeaky wheel gets the grease”, “Tall Poppy Syndrome”, and “Law of Jante” gave a good starting point. The latter two quoted phrases, when entered into an internet search engine, give far more complete commentary than I could give, including the several dozen examples under the TallPoppySyndrome entry for TVTropes. As these are so easy to find, I did not figure that a large digression like this followup was needed.

      2. Except that a squeaky wheel stands out because it’s noisy and annoying. Tall poppies and your other examples (and maybe the nail, as well?) stand out for their achievements. So not even quite a fair comparison, really…

        1. You are correct. They are not exact opposites. My goal was not to give opposites to the squeaky wheel phrase but rather “Western” equivalents for “The nail that stands up …”. I did this to disagree with the hypothesis that those original two phrases give a useful contrast between Japanese and Western cultures, since the same contrast exists between the Western cultures of (say) the US and Sweden, or between the US and New Zealand.

    2. I heard both of these adages growing up in Ireland in the 70s so I think “Western” is fair.

      I also heard that for every proverb there is another directly contradictory saying. “Too many cooks spoil the broth” vs “Many hands make light work”. “Distance makes the heart grow fonder” vs “Out of sight, out of mind” etc.

    3. What’s really fun is that generally stock phrases like these have other common phrases that say the exact opposite.

  2. Here, it’s not just okay to be unique. Standing out is part of how we create public identities.

    …of course, if you do too much of it, federal prosecutors are likely to harass you to your grave.

  3. My current resolutions are 1600×900 on board and 1920×1080 external.

    There seems to be a great deal of color variance between the two – my external display is too red and my internal one too blue.

    Perhaps I should speak to a therapist about that… it suggests that my depression is outwardly manifested as anger.

    As to the way I think, I seem to think in over-stretched computer metaphors.

    My non-smartass resolution is merely to more consciously life-track. Health, finances, creativity, momentum towards goals, and everything else are the anticipated benefits, but the central mechanism is to live a life more closely examined, understanding that a few months of being answerable to myself for what I’m doing with my time must certainly result in redirecting much of it.

  4. It is always hard to study small differences in cultures without resorting to raw stereotypes, but you are good at teasing apart the details.

    The last paragraph on the superstition of bragging reminds me of a story I heard from a friend… He was in Mauritania (western edge of the Sahara Desert), and spent a lot of time with locals working on engineering projects. They are generally devout Muslim, and modest to an extreme degree.

    They told him that no one has ever gotten a good census of the population (to this day no one is really sure how many people live there), partly due to the nomadic nature of many of the people living there, but also due to their modesty – if you ask someone how many children they have, they will just reply, “Praise Allah, we have been blessed with children.” “Wonderful, but how many? Three? Four?” “We have been blessed with children.” and so on. You apparently can’t get people to tell you how many children they have, how many goats they own, how many date trees they own, or even get local tribal leaders to tell you how many people live in their village, “Praise be to Allah, our village is healthy.”

    1. While modesty- and a desire to avert misfortune and to practice right piety towards God- are no doubt a part of census obfuscation, there are probably other reasons. Nomads, in northwest Africa and elsewhere, are not ‘primitive’ people unaware of the exigencies of the modern world. Censuses represent a key means of modern states making populations visible (legible in James Scott’s terminology) and hence subject to taxation and regulation. Why should extra-state people volunteer information on their lives and property to an entity they have no reason to trust?

      Colonial regimes of last century often encountered this ‘problem,’ which they attributed to superstition and backwardness, when just as often the various indigenous peoples were consciously resisting colonial states. These strategies might have built upon pre-existing cultural standards or practices, but adapted to meet new situations. No culture, be it in a modern liberal capitalist society or a semi-nomadic tribal one, remains in stasis, but is continually in a process of change and conservation (something the article above touches upon).

    2.  That final paragraph reminded me of my grandpa.  Whenever he was asked “How are you,” his stock answer was “Oh, fair for an old man.”  He was born here but of completely German lineage, which was still spoken by his elders.  Although, it may be more relevant that he was a Detroiter, a depression-era teen, or just had an odd sense of humor.

      Ever since I hit thirty, I’ve been saying it, too.  Not even ironically, either.  Partly as a nod to Papa, but also that I was shaped by those same family values, which include not bragging on yourself.  And also, I just plain feel *old* now.

  5. Wait….if the American’s wanted to be unique then surely the best strategy is to assume that there was an equal number of pens to start with and the most unique response is to take one the most common pens left.  i.e. the one that most people had left behind. This is (sort of) borne out in the experiment by the fact that in their failed desire to be unique most of them picked the same pen. (Admittedly if they’d all followed this alternative strategy then they would still have all ended up with the same pen).

    Extrapolating from pen choice to cultural motivation sounds like a massive stretch anyway, you could just as easily argue that capitalist American’s see that there is a greater demand for green pens and so take one of those on the basis the higher demand makes it more valuable.

  6. Years ago I made the resolution to examine myself more than once a year and make new goals when and where appropriate. It’s working out OK.

  7. I’d say the Americans picked the different colored pen because it was safe.  They were going to put it in their pocket.

    If they had to pick from things they would have to wear… I suspect their desire to be maverick individuals would have evaporated.

    Look at the clothes people wear and the cars they drive.  Within their peer group it’s a lot of sameness.

    Perhaps the Chinese just see peer groups as much larger.

  8. I’m Chinese and have a completely different interpretation of the pens experiment.  In Chinese (and extrapolating from my other Asian friends, other Asian cultures as well) culture, it’s impolite or inconsiderate to take the last one of something.  

    So if there is one piece of chicken left on the plate, it will stay there because nobody wants to be the rude one that took the last piece. Sometimes you’ll see somebody cut the piece in half just so there could be something left there.  Only when it is cold and dried up and nobody else would want it will somebody perhaps take it, under guise of helping clear the plate from the table.  This happens in family situations somewhat, but more often at a banquet or setting when there are outsiders to whom maintain “face” is important. I think this explains the pen choices better.  Perhaps it could still be interpreted as stemming from a collectivist mentality, but for different reasons than those cited.

    1. That was my first thought as well. The American analogy that comes to mind is the last slice of pizza: people are loath to take the last slice of a large, shared pizza, partly because they don’t want to be seen as the person who over-ate or who inconsiderately took the last slice from someone who may not have had his full share.

      There are other possibilities as well. For example, one might assume that people believe there was initially an even mix of the two colors, so it’s possible that those who took the green pens value things that other people have chosen before (popular, tried-and-true choices), while those that take the orange pens value things which are more unique or less widely-chosen. Those who chose the green pen could also value keeping options open: if you take the absolute last green pen, you could come back later and ask to trade it for one of the many remaining orange pens if you so choose.

      You can’t be sure what the difference in mindset was, or even that there was a consistent mindset across all the people of a given group. You can only be relatively sure that there is _some_sort_ of difference that correlates to membership in a group (assuming a statistically significant number of trials).

  9. I feel similar about new years resolutions as XKCD does.

    It just seems crazy to me that these conversations mostly only happen once a year at a particular time, so I gave up making new years resolutions a few years back.

  10. My resolutions have usually been something like ‘the same, only more so’.  Keep on the paths I am trying to create for myself, basically, while also enjoying my kids.

    I suspect that people’s choice of pens might change at different stages of life.  A teen might be very concerned about having a different colour of pen than his peers, while a >40 such as myself could give a crap about peers and will pick the pen s/he likes.

  11. Wow thanks for all the great information here. I never knew about some of these studies. Especially about the different pens etc… I will look them up in more detail later. Great article. I still use a pen and paper to set my goals, the traditional way :)

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