Under the Hood

Your Brain’s Reward System May Be Sabotaging Your New Year’s Resolutions

new years resolution
Common New Year's resolutions — like losing weight or watching less TV — are often thwarted by our brain's reward system. CC BY 2.0

By now, we’re either sticking to our New Year’s resolutions and beginning to see results, or we’ve given up a while ago, and question why we ever thought we’d be able to accomplish them to begin with. New research finds that goals and resolutions are sometimes hard to keep because our brains get easily distracted by past rewards — even when we’re not expecting a reward in the present.

In other words, our brains often focus too much on past rewards than current tasks. Once sticking to your daily resolution begins to get tough, your brain instead concentrates on the pleasure of fatty foods, or Netflix and other time-wasters; dopamine rushes in, flushing away any thought of following through on boring resolutions that seem to bring no such reward. This process ends up being quite distracting, often subconsciously.

“We don’t have complete control over what we pay attention to,” Susan Courtney, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and senior author of the study, said in the press release. “We don’t realize our past experience biases our attention to certain things. I could choose healthy food or unhealthy food, but my attention keeps being drawn to fettuccini Alfredo. What we tend to look at, think about and pay attention to is whatever we’ve done in the past that was rewarded.”

In the study, the researchers examined 20 participants as they completed a task on a computer. They were asked to find red and green objects on the screen, which was filled with many different colors; if they identified a red object, they received $1.50. If they found a green one, they received 25 cents.

On the second day, the researchers scanned participants’ brains while they completed a different task of finding specific shapes on the screen. Even though the new task didn’t involve color or have money as a reward, the researchers found that when participants saw red objects, their brains temporarily filled with dopamine — in regions that are associated with attention. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that regulates the brain’s reward and pleasure systems, and prods us in taking action to get rewards. It’s also involved in addiction, as people who have addictions are believed to have lower amounts of dopamine.

It turns out that the previous reward of $1.50 for red objects was distracting — the participants took longer to find the shapes because the color red was instead monopolizing their attention, even if rationally they knew only shapes mattered. This suggests that once the novelty wears off New Year’s resolutions, the brain continues to be distracted by pleasurable things that once took up our time instead of going to the gym — like watching Netflix every night. This is one of the many reasons why New Year’s resolutions are often doomed to fail.

“What’s surprising here is people are not getting rewarded and not expecting a reward,” Courtney said in the press release. “There’s something about past reward association that’s still causing a dopamine release. That stimulus has become incorporated into the reward system.”

Even though our brains appear to be the culprits here, it’s not impossible to stay focused on your goals. The researchers found that certain participants were able to repress dopamine release and remain focused on shapes instead of colors; they were able to accomplish the task more quickly.

If you need to, make some changes in setting your goals so that they’re not too ambitious or unrealistic. And remember to question yourself as you go along, as recent research found this helped people in keeping their resolutions. And perhaps being able to recognize pleasurable distractions and keeping your eye on the ball anyway can propel you forward into accomplishing what you need to do in 2016.

Source: Anderson B, Kuwabara H, Courtney S, Wong D, Gean E, Rahmim A. The Role of Dopamine in Value-Based Attentional Orienting. Current Biology, 2016.

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