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Research explores why change is so hard to achieve

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It’s that time of year when many people set out their goals and aspirations for the coming year.  Whether it’s to lose weight, do better at work, find romance or many of the other things people hope to achieve in 2015, what is clear is that most attempts will fail.

Indeed, research suggests that only a minority of resolutions manage to make it into February, let alone anything approaching lasting behavioural change.

So what’s stopping success from occurring?  A study from the University of Colorado Boulder thinks it may have some clues.  It suggests that when we’re trying to enact change, we’re much more likely to give more weight to our positive behaviours than we are to our negative ones.

So, for example, if you’re trying to lose weight, you might fall into the trap of thinking that not eating another slice of cake is much more beneficial to your goal than eating the extra slice is harmful to it.

“Basically what our research shows is that people tend to accentuate the positive and downplay the negative when considering how they’re doing in terms of goal pursuit,” the researchers say.

It’s what the researchers call progress bias, and whilst it can distort our progress, the researchers do believe it can prove motivational for some of us because it downplays an occasional lapse, whereas making progress feels like a big deal.

The flip side is that it can prompt us to engage in the kind of behaviours we think contribute to our end goal, when in actual fact they don’t really do much to help at all, thus lulling us into a false sense of accomplishment.

“So our moral for the season is monitor, monitor, monitor,” the researchers say. “For example, dieters need to pay close attention to calories in and out—both aspects—during this tempting time to keep from falling prey to the bias.”

What’s more, the study discovered that this also applies when we think of others too.  For instance, if we assess the goals of someone else, we’re also liable to fall into the trap of giving positive behaviours more weight than they deserve.

It’s probably fair to say that a number of organizations will be attempting to undergo change in the new year.  I wonder if the same psychological biases will play a part in those efforts?

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