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."