Taking the New Year’s Resolution Test seriously: Eliciting individuals’ judgements about self-control and spontaneity

Kevin P. Grubiak, Andrea Isoni, Robert Sugden, Mengjie Wang, Jiwei Zheng

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Self-control failure occurs when an individual experiences a conflict between immediate desires and longer-term goals, recognises psychological forces that hinder goal-directed action, tries to resist them but fails in the attempt. Behavioural economists often invoke assumptions about self-control failure to justify proposals for policy interventions. These arguments require workable methods for eliciting individuals’ goals and for verifying occurrences of self-control failure, but developing such methods confronts two problems. First, it is not clear that individuals’ goals are context-independent. Second, facing an actual conflict between a desire and a self-acknowledged goal, a person may consciously choose not to resist the desire, thinking that spontaneity is more important than self-control. We address these issues through an online survey that elicited individuals’ self-reported judgements about the relative importance of self-control and spontaneity in conflicts between enjoyment and health-related goals. To test for context-sensitivity, the judgement-elicitation questions were preceded by a memory-recall task which directed participants’ attention either to the enjoyment of acting on desires or to the satisfaction of achieving goals. We found little evidence of context-sensitivity. In both treatments, however, judgements that favoured spontaneity were expressed with roughly the same frequency and strength as judgments that favoured self-control.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-23
Number of pages23
JournalBehavioural Public Policy
Issue number1
Early online date31 Jan 2022
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2024


  • spontaneity
  • self-control
  • libertarian paternalism
  • nudges

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