Believing change is possible can be undermined by anticipatory anxiety


It’s a new year and many people are in the mood for making a fresh start.

And that often means giving something up (cigarettes, alcohol, junk food).

Unfortunately, the odds of sticking with new year resolutions are not good. Come February, 80% of people will have given up giving up. So what can we learn from the 20% who make it?

Some might just be lucky, but most – whether they realise it or not – will be using techniques based on scientific evidence.

While you might feel you have little in common with people who overcome drug dependency, you can benefit from the techniques that have been shown to help this group.

The two Ps

Perseverance underpins most stories of successful change, and it can take anywhere from six to 30 attempts to quit for those dependent on drugs to become abstinent. 

While these numbers might seem off putting, it’s important to be realistic about the need to persevere. Incremental change is known to be superior to overly ambitious targets – appealing as they might be.

This leads to the second “p” – planning. Conventional wisdom suggests that planning improves the chances of success, but there is evidence that unplanned attempts to quit smoking can be just as successful. Good news for anyone embarking on an impromptu attempt to change.

So although spontaneous attempts can be successful for smokers, picking the right day to start changing other habits is likely to play a part.

We know that motivation and energy fluctuate, so think about when you will have maximum levels of both. Starting well gives the initial encouragement needed to get to day two.

Learn from lapsing

Having a lapse shouldn’t be viewed as a failure or used as an excuse to give up. It can be tempting to view change in a binary way – success or failure. Instead, view a lapse as an opportunity to gain insight, reflecting as honestly as possible on why the lapse happened and how this could be avoided or counteracted on the next attempt at change.

Research has repeatedly shown us that these processes are crucial for changing ingrained habits, so much so that in the world of addiction, treatment is often referred to as “relapse prevention”, to acknowledge that treatment is as much about preventing the negative as it is accentuating the positive.

So although spontaneous attempts can be successful for smokers, picking the right day to start changing other habits is likely to play a part.

High levels of self-efficacy (a belief and confidence in personal ability) when trying to change behaviour predict ultimate success.

 Factors that increase self-efficacy include self-talk (“I can do this”), previous success at changing other behaviour or habits, and affirmations from others.

Cultural differences can influence how comfortable and skilled an affirmation is. The way Americans routinely affirm each other is in contrast to those in the UK who tend to be suspicious of affirmations.

Believing change is possible can be undermined by “anticipatory anxiety” – when a person expects and fears withdrawal symptoms when changing a habit, such as smoking. The anticipated discomfort is usually greater than the actual experience but can paralyze any attempt to test reality.

Rather than focusing on what you are losing by giving up smoking or alcohol, think of what you will gain (more money, better sleep). A useful exercise to help assess personal benefits is the decision balance sheet.

Tell someone what you plan to do, you won’t want to let them or yourself down. Weight Watchers employ this type of social contract in some ways to encourage but also as a deterrent to relapse.

 Shame and guilt are powerful emotions that most people will try to avoid.

So when it comes to adopting a scientific approach to change, the evidence provides some helpful tips. Be prepared for several change attempts, don’t be too ambitious, don’t keep your change a secret and allow yourself to be complimented and encouraged.

Finally, today might be the right day to start. If you’ve only just decided, with motivation and energy on your side, your chances of ditching that bad habit are just as good as those who’ve spent weeks preparing.

Making a change is relatively easy for most of us, maintaining that change is evidently a lot tougher. So while some might be lucky enough to make a change and stick to it, most of us will have to keep trying, the science suggests we’ll get there in the end.

The Oxford dictionary defines a fated event as “something that happens outside of a person’s control, regarded as pre-determined by a supernatural power.” This conceptualization of fate, referred to as fatalism, assumes that fate has the ultimate authority over individuals’ lives and renders personal actions irrelevant. Past research revealed that Easterners believed in fate to a greater extent than Westerners (Cheng et al., 2013).

This heightened belief in fate among Easterners would predict lower action and agency, but the strong academic achievement (Organisation for Economic Co-operation Development [OECD], 2018) and GDP growth (World Bank, 2018) in many Asian countries are somewhat inconsistent with this idea.

To address this issue, recent research (Au et al., 201120122017) introduced an alternative perspective on fate: negotiating with fate. In contrast to fatalism’s assumption that people’s life outcomes are fixed and pre-determined, negotiating with fate postulates that fate imposes boundaries within which people can shape their outcomes through their actions.

In other words, according to this belief, fate imposes constraints within which individuals must work (e.g., socio-cultural environments, socio-economic status, uncontrollable life events), but how individuals exercise agency within the boundaries of the constraints ultimately determines individuals’ life course.

From this perspective, negotiating with fate prescribes specific roles for fate and personal control. In fact, we may routinely act consistently with the idea of negotiating with fate without realizing it. For example, when we open the fridge at the end of a long day to make dinner, we may decide to use the ingredients that we have available to make the best dinner possible, rather than to go to the supermarket and buy ingredients to make the specific dish that we are craving.

Thus, in this situation, we are actively working with the constraints that we face (i.e., the ingredients that we have available) to achieve a desired goal (i.e., making a good dinner). The belief in negotiating with fate was identified by examining Chinese and American idioms (Au, 2008Chiu et al., 2012).

In both cultures, proverbs reflected three fate beliefs:

(1) personal control (i.e., individuals’ actions solely determined outcomes and fate does not play a role; “You are the master of your fate”);

(2) fatalism (i.e., fate determines outcomes, which cannot be altered by personal actions; “You will meet your fate on the road you took to avoid it”); and

(3) negotiating with fate (i.e., fate imposes boundaries within which personal actions can shape outcomes; “When fate gives you lemons, make lemonade”).

Here, we used an American idiom to illustrate the idea of negotiable fate, but a cross-cultural comparison revealed that Chinese proverbs are much more likely than American proverbs to capture the belief in negotiating with fate.

Given the origins of negotiating with fate, questions about its utility beyond the Chinese context may arise. Following Chiu and Hong’s (2005) approach to cultural knowledge, we argue for its pan-cultural applicability. Chiu and Hong (2005) likened cultural knowledge to tools: knowledge that helps the group adapt to the environmental challenges faced gains popularity; knowledge that is no longer perceived as useful in the current environmental context fades into obscurity.

From this perspective, cultural knowledge is not unique to a culture and inaccessible to other cultures per se, but is a tool that can be recruited by individuals outside of that culture when the situation renders it relevant.

Context-Specific Advantages of Negotiating With Fate

Au et al. (201120122017) proposed that the prevalence and consequences of different fate beliefs depended on the socio-ecology of the environment within which individuals function. More specifically, negotiating with fate was postulated as being particularly popular and beneficial when individuals must contend with external factors to determine outcomes.

 Au et al. (2012) examined the role of constraints on the consequences of negotiable fate, operationalizing constraints as acknowledging that there were aspects of the external world that cannot be changed through personal actions.

The cross-cultural results from Au et al. (2012) replicated past findings on perceived constraints (Su et al., 1999): Chinese participants perceived greater external constraints than their American counterparts.

In Su et al.’s (1999) chapter, a study was reported in which Chinese participants subscribed to a stronger entity belief of the world (i.e., viewed the world as inherently static and unchangeable), but subscribed a stronger incremental theory of the self (i.e., viewed individuals to be more malleable), presumably because individuals need to change in response to the unchangeable external constraints.

Furthermore, Chinese participants endorsed negotiating with fate to a greater extent than their American counterparts. Importantly, perceived constraints mediated the cultural difference in negotiating with fate, suggesting that constraints play a critical role in fostering the belief that individuals can change outcomes by working within boundaries imposed by fate.

Lastly, the context-specific benefits of negotiating with fate were also evident: among those who perceived relatively greater constraints (i.e., the Chinese sample) negotiating with fate was positively associated with the greater use of active coping strategies and higher self-esteem; whereas among those who faced relatively fewer constraints (i.e., in the American sample), the same belief was associated with the greater use of avoidant coping strategies and lower self-esteem.

To test Chiu and Hong’s (2005) theory that cultural knowledge is flexibly recruited and applied in response to the environment, we examined whether the need to contend with constraints can cultivate the belief in negotiating with fate beyond the Chinese cultural context. If the results support their theory, we should be able to observe a similar pattern of results in a population that does not ordinarily believe that one can negotiate fate nor benefit from this belief.

Strengthening the Endorsement of Negotiating With Fate and Its Associated Advantages

The current set of studies addressed two research questions. First, if the belief in negotiating with fate is part of a cognitive toolbox that individuals flexibly use in response to the situation, can the experience of constraints strengthen the belief that one can negotiate with fate, even among US American participants?

Although Americans did not explicitly endorse the belief in fate (Leung et al., 20022012), social psychologists have found that Americans were reluctant to tempt fate (Risen and Gilovich, 2008), and recruited fate as an explanation for past events when asked to think about “why” the event happened (Burrus and Roese, 2006).

Therefore, we predicted that Americans’ belief in negotiating with fate will be stronger when they are faced with constraining circumstances (the activation hypothesis). We sought to capture the experience of facing daily constraints by operationalizing constraints as the lack of choices. 

Constraints and lack of choices have been found to be analogous, given research indicating that people experience the availability of choices as the lack of constraints (i.e., freedom) and the non-availability of choices as the presence of constraints (Schwartz et al., 2002Savani et al., 2010).

Thus, Studies 1 and 2 first activated a constraint (i.e., limitations on possible actions) vs. a choice (i.e., no limitations on possible actions) mindset (Savani and Rattan, 2012), and then assessed participants’ endorsement to negotiate with fate.

Second, among US American participants who do not generally believe strongly in negotiating with fate (Au et al., 2012), can exposure to the concept of negotiating with fate retain its advantages when they must contend with constraints? Au et al. (2012) found that the belief that one can negotiate with fate was not adaptive for Americans—those with stronger beliefs in negotiating with fate were more likely to use avoidant coping styles and had lower self-esteem.

This is likely because unlike the Chinese, Americans face fewer constraints in their everyday lives. However, when the circumstances require Americans to navigate constraints, will the belief that one can negotiate with fate help them cope in a more positive manner? We expected that the answer to be yes (the context-specific advantages hypothesis).

Thus, Studies 3–6 utilized a belief activation paradigm (adapted from Rattan et al., 2012) to explore whether activating the concept of negotiating with fate (vs. personal control or fatalism) affected various outcomes that indicate constructive ways of managing constraints: appreciating the impact of personal actions, ruminating less, viewing the event through more positive lenses, and finding meaning.

The Conversation
Media Contacts:
Ian Hamilton & Sally Marlow – The Conversation


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