People who abandon New Year’s resolutions or other commitments can retain the respect of their peers by blaming external factors such as a lack of money, new research suggests.
Studies have shown that people were more likely to be seen as having good self-control rather than giving up on their commitment to living a healthier life if they claimed they didn’t have the money for a gym membership or expensive new cooking equipment. People who instead claimed they didn’t have the time to exercise or replace a takeaway habit with healthy, home-cooked food were more likely to be seen as having poor self-control.
Dr Janina Steinmetz, reader in marketing at Bayes Business School (formerly Cass), who conducted the research, analyzed what excuses make it more likely that people will appear to have good self-control even when they fail to keep a decision or promise.
He said: “Many decisions or commitments involve either time or money, so the lack of one or the other seems to be a good excuse to break without negatively affecting how others see us. However, these two excuses are not just as effective. My six experiments involving about 1,200 people found that citing a lack of money leads to better results — in terms of perceptions of the person — than citing a lack of time.”
For example, in one experiment, 200 online participants read about people who had broken their commitment to eat healthier foods. Some of those they read about blamed the cost of cooking good meals, while others said they were defeated by a lack of time. Participants saw the first group as having better self-control and were more likely to see them as potentially good gym partners.
The differences appear to reflect how much justification is perceived to be within the individual’s control, Dr. Steinmetz suggests.
He said: “These results are surprising because people like to use lack of time as an excuse when they can’t do something. They equate lack of time with high status. However, studies show that we tend to believe that others could find time to exercise or cook healthy meals if they were sufficiently motivated, so citing factors over which many of us have less control, such as lack of money, can create the perception that we have better self-control even when we give up New Year’s resolution or break a commitment.”
The results, published last week in European Journal of Social Psychologyit could have implications for local authorities, NHS organizations and others campaigning on public health issues — and health professionals working with obese people.
Dr. Steinmetz explained, “People often justify a diet heavy on fast food or TV dinners, saying it’s faster than buying and cooking healthy ingredients. Organizations that promote or market healthy lifestyles or work with patients on behavior change can challenge this self-aggrandizing claim that people are “too busy” to choose the healthy option. They can promote healthy but easily prepared meals using affordable ingredients or the benefits of even half an hour of aerobic activity. This will undermined the credibility of a well-known justification”.
There may also be lessons in research for anyone in the market for a new job or romance.
Dr. Steinmetz said: “In job interviews and on dating site questionnaires, people are often asked to talk about a failure they’ve had in their lives. Obviously, we’ve all had them, but when we explain why, if you’re looking for work or for romance , blaming uncontrollable factors can help convey a positive image. Although my research did not examine these contexts, it might be wise to avoid the temptation to blame lack of time.”