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

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26 Responses to “What your New Year's Resolutions tell us about the way you think”

  1. nmcvaugh says:

    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.”

    • Andrew Dalke says:

      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).

      • nmcvaugh says:

        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.

        • Andrew Dalke says:

          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.

      • ando bobando says:

        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…

        • Andrew Dalke says:

          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.

    • Hal says:

      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.

    • Daemonworks says:

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

  2. Daneel says:

    I always write SMART resolutions.

  3. Rob Knop says:

    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.

  4. Jim Saul says:

    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.

  5. Sam Ley says:

    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.”

    • 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).

    • noah django says:

       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.

  6. tmcsweeney says:

    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.

  7. timquinn says:

    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.

  8. robcat2075 says:

    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.

  9. Collin Ong says:

    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.

    • WhyBother says:

      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).

    • rocketpjs says:

      Canadians tend to do the same thing with food, not sure about pens.

  10. teapot says:

    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.

  11. rocketpjs says:

    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.

  12. Gary Daly says:

    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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