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Resolve to change what you do, not who you are

By William Weir
The Hartford CourantIt’s time again to assess what we’re doing wrong and how to change it.
But how much can people really change? Psychologists have been trying to answer this for decades.
Considering the economy, the environment and a hyper health-consciousness, we’re reminded more than ever these days of the consequences for failing to change our habits. Bringing your lunch to work every day isn’t just a matter of saving up for a vacation anymore. Do it right and you could be staving off bankruptcy, death and the end of the planet.
John Norcross, who teaches psychology at the University of Scranton, understands that people often ridicule New Year’s resolutions as ultimately fruitless endeavors. But he notes that some of the most popular resolutions ó quitting smoking and losing weight ó can be life-saving and nothing to mock.
And despite conventional wisdom, he says, New Year’s resolvers do a pretty good job at achieving their goals.
According to a study led by Norcross, up to 46 percent of people who resolve to change their behavior are successful after six months. This was based on a series of telephone interviews with 159 people. The same study surveyed 123 people who recognized a need to change a particular behavior, but were not ready to commit to doing so. Of these, only 4 percent had actually changed their behavior by the six-month mark.
The trick is to set out to change what you do, not who you are. If you weren’t crazy about jogging before, a resolution isn’t going to make you like it any better. But you do have a choice to exercise anyway.
“When it comes to changing personality, it can seem like a Sisyphean task,” Norcross said. “We do much better at changing discrete behavior.”
Why not just make the resolutions any other day, say, a random day in March? By doing so at the beginning of the year, Norcross said, you have company. Between 40 and 50 percent of the population also has made resolutions. Getting the support of friends, family and co-workers is key to making the changes stick.
Here are a few more tips Norcross offers.
Track your progress.
Reward your successes.
Remember that slipping is not the same as failing. As long as you can avoid getting down on yourself for the slip, you can get back on track. To avoid future slips, avoid situations where you’re likely to give in to temptation, or find some way to otherwise distract yourself.
If it’s wholesale change you’re after, learn a new language. A recent study has shown that people can take on new personalities when they speak in a second language.
According to a study in the Journal of Consumer Research, a group of bilingual Hispanic women (all U.S. citizens) looked at a group of ads written in either Spanish or English featuring women in various scenarios. Six months later, they looked at the same ads in the other language. Though the messages were the same, perceptions of the women in the ad varied greatly with the change in language. The study’s authors ó at Baruch College and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee ó say their research suggests that there’s a greater link between personality and language than previously thought.
Also, consider the possibility that you don’t need to change at all. In her recent book “Stuck: Why We Can’t (or Won’t) Move On,” author Anneli Rufus writes that popular culture presents life as an endless stream of excitement, which makes it a profitable business to make people think that they’re in a rut.
“The main objective to all marketing is to make the consumer feel inadequate,” she writes.
The more inadequate we’re made to feel, she said by phone from San Francisco, the more we want to buy. From the time we’re able to understand ads, we’re identifying with certain brands. “Coca Cola becomes your identity: `I’m a Coke drinker.’ We can’t even discern between identity and brand loyalty,” she says. “It creates a sort of person who is susceptible to bad habits.”
So, yes, people can change. But before you make that resolution, realize that change can sometimes be overrated.

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