It’s about keeping face in the eyes of others

Did you make any New Year’s resolutions? Perhaps you resolved to get fit, to lose weight, to save more money, or to drink less alcohol. Or your resolution may have been more altruistic: to help those in need, or to reduce your carbon footprint. But are you keeping your resolution?

We are not yet far into 2010, but studies show that fewer than half of those who make New Year’s resolutions manage to keep them for as long as one month. What does this tell us about human nature, and our ability to live either prudently or ethically?

Part of the problem, of course, is that we make resolutions to do only things that we are not otherwise likely to do. Only an anorexic would resolve to eat ice cream at least once a week, and only a workaholic would resolve to spend more time in front of the television. So we use the occasion of the New Year to try to change behavior that may be the most difficult to change. That makes failure a distinct possibility.

To prevent that, we seek to shore up our current intention to lose weight. By making a solemn resolution and telling our family and close friends about it, we tilt the scales against succumbing to temptation. If we fail to keep our resolution, we will have to admit that we are less in control of our behavior than we had hoped, thus losing face in our own eyes and in the eyes of others about whom we care.


Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University and Laureate Professor in the Center for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne. His most recent book is The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010. 

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