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Breaking the Mental Block: Helping Shoppers Stick to New Year’s Resolutions
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Breaking the Mental Block: Helping Shoppers Stick to New Year’s Resolutions

On Jan. 1, people around the world made resolutions to better themselves during the new year. But are consumers really—mentally—prepared to commit to change?

According to Nielsen’s consumer neuroscience experts, we may be consciously on board, but, subconsciously, sticking to resolutions is a guaranteed struggle. The habits people aim to break are more deeply ingrained than we realize, and trying to counter them with resolutions isn’t as straightforward as it seems. In fact, in our brains, goal-oriented thinking doesn’t overlap with habits-oriented thinking at all. So although we may consciously be open to new ideas, we are unknowingly biased towards more routine and practical solutions.

As a result, people are practically hard-wired to fail at sticking to their resolutions. Ironically, the more ambitious we are to change, the less we’re able to do so. The worst habits are those that are hardest to break (as they are the most ingrained), and so people often find themselves making the same resolutions year after year.* Sound familiar?

Understanding how brains process these behaviors is the first step to success for consumers—and brands. But where can they start?

Health and wellness are top priorities for U.S. consumers as January takes hold, with “staying fit and healthy” consumers’ top resolution this year for 37% of respondents in a recent survey, followed closely by “lose weight” (32%). And many plan to lose weight by making healthier food choices (43%).

But eliminating temptation is crucial. Ever tried to resist dessert after catching a glimpse of it in the fridge? It’s almost impossible. This is because subtle environmental clues can automatically trigger cravings and old habits, despite our best intentions.† In fact, Nielsen’s consumer neuroscience research has found that even a small change to a package design can make a huge impact on our desire for the product. This means that to break bad habits, change your surroundings—you’re less likely to revert to your old ways when you remove the cues that trigger them in the first place.‡

Brands can help consumers stay on track by clarifying language on their packaging. And shoppers are increasingly likely to respond to such changes: There has been a 13% increase in the number of people who examine the ingredient list and a corresponding 9% increase in the number checking the nutritional facts panel since 2006. Improved label clarity could lead to better in-store nutrition decisions.

Limiting resolutions is also important for consumers. Breaking routine by exerting will power is taxing for our brain. We can only put a finite amount of effort towards active change, meaning that the more resolutions we have, the less likely we are to stick to any.§

Simple messages from marketers could help keep consumers focused. Recent ad testing for the World Food Programme found that sticking to a simple benefit statement helped viewers connect how they could make a tangible impact, and this was shown to improve action intent. Similar messages could help keep people focused on their new year’s goals.

Finally, a positive outlook is key. Belief in the finite limitations of your will power can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but the reverse is also true. If you believe in your ability to maintain self-control, you are actually able to sustain it for longer.**

So keeping advertising upbeat could help engage viewers and keep them working toward their resolutions. In fact, too much focus on negative aspects—even for serious topics like hunger awareness—can undermine their persuasiveness.

*Polivy, J and Herman C.P. (2002). If at first you don’t succeed: False hope of self-change. American Psychologist, 57(9), 677-689.
†Tricomi, E, Balleeine, B.W., and O’Doherty, J.P. (2009) A specific role for posterior dorsolateral striatum in human habit learning. European Journal of Neuroscience, 29, 2225-2232.
‡Wood, W., Tam, L., & Guerrero Witt, M. (2005). Changing circumstances, disrupting habits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 918–933.
§Litt, A, Maymin, S. Shiv, B.(2011). Pressure and perverse flights to familiarity. Psychological Science, 22(4) 523-531.
**Job, V, Walton, GM, Bemecker, K, and Dweck, C.S. (2013). Beliefs about willpower determine the impact of glucose on self control. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110 (37) 14837-14842.