Is It Easier to Keep Resolutions for Lent or New Year's?
Oct. 23, 2012 --
With just over two weeks until Election Day, the presidential candidates might feel tempted to promise the world to still-undecided voters when the two meet on the stage at Lynn University for their final debate. With so many promises made to so many constituencies over the course of a campaign, victorious candidates are bound to ignore or outright contradict pledges made in the run up to office. Voters are inclined to forgive one or two campaign pledges that were left behind after the race. But some promises are so big, that breaking them is not so easily forgotten.
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The U.S. presidential election in 1916 pitted incumbent president Woodrow Wilson against Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes. While Wilson was in office, conflict erupted in Europe to become what would be World War I. Although Americans generally supported Allied powers, voters wanted the United States to remain out of the conflict. To capitalize on public opinion on this issue, Wilson campaigned on the slogan, "He kept us out of war." Months after winning reelection, Wilson went to Congress to approve a declaration of war with Germany and its allies. Wilson have campaigned on the implicit promise American neutrality in World War I, but he never explicitly stated he would never lead the United States to join the war.
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Herbert Hoover's alleged campaign promise might seem too ambitious by today's standards, but with the phrase "a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage," Hoover gave a clear vision of the prosperity he envisioned for the country. This phrase was not issued by Hoover himself, though it certainly reflected the tenor of his campaign promises. Rather was used in a campaign advertisement published by the Republican Party. Less than a year after he took office, the stock market crash of 1929 heralded the Great Depression, the longest and deepest period of economic decline in the 20th century.
Amid a depression with no end in sight, Franklin Delano Roosevelt campaigned in 1932 on a promise of putting the nation back to work. Roosevelt criticized Hoover's inability to restore the nation to prosperity and even ridiculed the ballooning of the deficit under the Hoover administration. Upon taking office, however, Roosevelt's New Deal programs dramatically increased the federal budget deficit far beyond the levels achieved by his predecessor.
Like Wilson, Roosevelt maintained a policy of neutrality at the outbreak of World War II, and campaigned on the issue. Unlike Wilson, however, Roosevelt was unambiguous in his 1940 campaign declaration: "I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars." One year later, Roosevelt would go back on the promise and lead the United States into war in response to the attacks on Pearl Harbor.
Following his assumption of the office of the presidency after the assassination of his predecessor, Lyndon B. Johnson was up for reelection in 1964 against Republican challenger Barry Goldwater. As his administration was making plans to escalate war in Vietnam, Johnson declared that his administration would not send ground troops into Vietnam. Months after being sworn in to another term of office, Johnson broke his promise, a move which lost him support with the public.
In 1968, Richard Nixon campaigned for the presidency with a pledge to end the war in Vietnam that had been launched and administered by previous Democratic administrations. There were even reports that Nixon had a "secret plan" to end the war without the United States being perceived as the losing side. Instead, Nixon continued to press American forces in Vietnam, resulting in an increase in combat deaths within just the first six months of Nixon assuming office.
In 1988, in his speech at the Republican National Convention to accept the Republican nomination for the presidency, George H.W. Bush made what might be the most famous broken promise in presidential history: "Read my lips: No new taxes." The phrase proved catchy and helped propel Bush to victory. Unfortunately, upon taking office, Bush inherited a national deficit from the previous administration, and with a Congress controlled by the opposition, had to raise taxes. The broken promise proved one of the major contributors for his failure to win reelection in 1992.
As Christians around the world attend Ash Wednesday services today, many will also mark the 46-day period of Lent by resolving to give something up.
While it’s unknown how many Christians successfully make it to Easter without chocolate or wine or forgetting to floss, they probably have an edge up on those who make New Year’s resolutions, experts said.
“Everything’s working in your favor for Lent,” said Tim Pychyl, a psychology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. “There are a few things that are happening: you’re part of a community, so you’re accountable, and you’re doing something that’s connected to your core values, so you feel some commitment, and it’s a fixed, shorter period of time.”
New Year’s resolutions are notorious for failing, as psychologists have documented: Just 8 percent are successful in achieving their goal, according to research from the University of Scranton. But 64 percent are successful for that first month.
“A New Year’s commitment for life is really overwhelming,” Pychyl said.
John Norcross, author of "Changeology" and a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Scranton, has been studying self change for 30 years.
“Whether you’re talking about New Year’s or the Great American Smokeout or a 40-day weight loss, the process of change is uncannily similar,” he said. The biggest reason most people fail? “The average person has been blamed for failing to change, but rarely trained to change,” he said.
“If you’re saying, Oops, it’s Lent, let me begin something -- that’s destined to fail.”
Instead, research has pinpointed some behaviors that can set the stage for success. First, Norcross said, think about the behavior you want to change and plan the healthy opposite before you begin. Make it as specific and concrete as possible, said Pychyl, who wrote "Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Positive Change." Establish new habits rather than simply getting rid of the old.
“So if your goal is to lose weight, tell yourself, ‘I will set myself a smaller plate at dinner, and I will only have one helping,’” he said.
Track your progress. Set mini-goals along the way. Also, expect to slip up.
“One of our most surprising findings was that those who were successful and unsuccessful slipped at identical rates in the first couple of weeks,” Norcross said. “These were not perfect angels who were succeeding. The difference is, they’ve learned to respond to the slip differently. The successful people realized that one slip need not become a fall. It’s time to call in social support and get right back to it.”
Other research has shown that when willpower is flagging, people are able to keep up their resolve if they do some value affirmation.
“And the thing with Lent, it’s connected to our values,” Tim said. “It’s second nature to do that value affirmation, and then you’re often able to muster up the rest of your willpower to do it.”