Change That I Can’t Really Believe In

Kelvin Noronha
Thinking Caps
knoronha@ucsd.edu
Kelvin Noronha Thinking Caps [email protected]
Kelvin Noronha Thinking Caps knoronha@ucsd.edu
Kelvin Noronha
Thinking Caps
[email protected]

As expected, New Year’s Day was heralded by brightly optimistic pledges and resolutions with a flurry of skepticism in return. In spite of all the holiday spirit, though, I stray away from the idea of resolutions like a frightened rabbit. It’s not because I particularly lack mental strength, though the smell of chocolate chip cookies can easily lure me from any ill-advised fitness goals. It’s mainly because humans are terrified of change; such monumental undertakings may as well be advertising their own peril.

Although changes in our routines or our environments are neurally stimulating, they set off all kinds of natural alarm bells. We’re adept at noticing even the tiniest changes around us; if something substantial changes, we go on red alert. We tend to have a xenophobic sort of suspicion. If there happens to be a different dish in our lunch, and we later feel ill, our bodies implicate the newcomer, and we are conditioned to hate it forever. While this could backfire and give us an aversion to something as innocent as Nutella, these ultimately help us avoid poisoning, predation or a host of other hazards.

This plays into the classic “if it ain’t broke” maxim, which operates under similar circumstances. In the case of New Year resolutions, we may be loath to do away with everything we’re used to in favor of some random unquantifiable “improvement.” Our resistance to change is the phenomenon of operant conditioning acting on a grand scale. If we’re still breathing and still have a pulse, we tend to treat it as a success that doesn’t need to be fiddled with. Our survival encourages us to retain the behaviors that have worked, as long as nothing catastrophic happens. Consequently, a resolution to say “thank you” more frequently in 2014 may not work if we’ve gotten away with ingratitude our whole lives.

This is all compounded by a certain amount of natural behavioral inertia. There’s no motivation to put effort into something new, especially when it will involve a concerted struggle. The noble yet difficult thought of abandoning sweets for a month is just dandy until you actually try it. It’s particularly difficult when you realize that even with your decadence you’re still fit enough to walk to class, or at least to the shuttle stop. And we don’t necessarily feel especially rejuvenated in the new year. Just like our birthday, realization that being 19 feels identical to being 18, merely replacing our wall calendar has no real correlation to changing anything about ourselves.

But this lazy indolence is solvable. If we really decide that we want to make a difference in our otherwise comfy lives, we can just trick ourselves into action by enacting the change piece by piece. The smaller the magnitude of the change, the more likely we’ll be able to deal with it. Just one less In-n-Out burger per month and voila, we’re practically vegetarians by September. Baby steps do have their merits — you get to congratulate yourself for a whole lot longer.

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