Scitech | Brand new semester, same old goals

It’s September 1 again, and the August binge of everything-you-had-planned-to-do-in-the-summer-but-hadn’t-gotten-around-to-yet has drawn to a close. We are back in school mode, and the inevitable school stress that started leaking into our psyches about a month ago is now drowning out any repressive mechanisms that had been keeping us sane until this point.

In order to ease that stress, many of us set goals to convince ourselves that this is going to be the year when we’ll get that 4.0, wear those skinny jeans that have been hanging in the closet since before the freshman 15, and finally get around to writing something for the Daily. Despite repeated failures (except for the last one), we somehow can’t seem to get out of the habit of making the same set of new school year’s resolutions.

Why do we keep setting goals and why do we keep failing? It is natural, after all, to want to change our behaviour for the better. Also, despite the diversity of McGill’s student population, one word that probably describes us all is ambitious. We keep failing either because we set unrealistic goals, because we are attempting the almost impossible task of eliminating an intrinsically rewarding behaviour, or because we simply lack self-discipline.

A more interesting question is why we keep setting the same goals over and over again. It goes without saying that every repeated goal represents a prior failure. Yet, the unsuccessful attempts don’t seem to deter us from pursuing the same goals again.

This goes completely against one of the basic assumptions of learning: operant conditioning. If a dog can learn to avoid jumping onto the table at dinner time, why can’t we break out of the cycle of failure and renewed effort that psychologists have dubbed “the false hope syndrome”? Why aren’t bad grades Pavlovian enough to condition us to study?
Research and scientific thought tell us that feedback as well as self-knowledge is necessary to follow through with our goals, but studies also show most people seem more willing to look into the future than the past, thus making it easy to ignore the failed attempts. In fact, sometimes the act of setting a goal can even create an imaginary sense of completion, which may contribute to our tendency to forget our resolutions mid-pursuit.

I know that in the end, despite the low probability of achieving my goals, I will still be making my classic set of new school year’s resolutions. I hear that people do change. The story of the girl who was a hot mess her first few years but was able to buckle down and graduated with a kick-ass GPA is not an urban campus myth, right?
And if worse comes to worst, there’s always New Year’s.