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The psychology behind failed resolutions

Already given up on your New Year's resolution? Here's the psychology of why.
ASU psychology professor explains why most resolutions fail.
January 15, 2016

ASU professor says best way to keep resolutions is to make them 'SMART'

It's the middle of January. How are those New Year's resolutions going?

If you're like most people, they're swiftly receding from memory. According to Forbes, 63 percent of Americans make resolutions, but only 8 percent keep them.

So why do we bother, year after year, if the failure rate is so high?

Paul Karoly, a psychology professor at Arizona State University, might know why. Karoly studies goals and motivation and claims a resolution is just a cultural function.

“What is a New Year's resolution? It’s a meme,” Karoly said. “It’s a culturally given thing. ‘Why don’t I lose weight, or get healthier?’ It has very little meaning besides that."

Karoly said the reason why we make them is because it's in line with Skinner’s Verbal Operant: where people enjoy praise — especially drunk people — and resolutions are an insincere way to get praise.

“You get drunk, you're with drunk people. You say something positive like ‘I am going to lose weight!’ and then everybody congratulates you for thinking that,” Karoly said. “Then you sober up and say, 'Tomorrow I’ll do that,' and you never do it.”

Even if you weren’t knocking a couple back when you made the resolution, adding onto a goal’s nearly inevitable failure is the abstinence violation effect, referring to a person's sense of loss of control over his or her behavior that has an overwhelming and demoralizing effect. For example, if you made a resolution to stop eating chips and you have one chip, you proceed to have the full bag because you already failed by eating one.

When applying it to other common resolutions like “go to the gym four times this week” or “quit smoking,” it becomes evident how easy it can seem to fail.

However, Karoly does think there is one way to make those resolutions stick: by making them “SMARTSpecific: It's not enough to say “I want to get a degree.” It’s vague, and changeable. Instead say something specific like, “I want to get my bachelor's in mass communications at ASU.” /// Measurable: A measurable statement would be “I’ll get my bachelor's by spring 2018.” /// Achievable/action-oriented: What are the specific steps? Try something like, “I will take this certain set of classes to get my associate's by the end of summer, leading into my degree at ASU.” /// Relevant: Ask yourself how important this is to you and your life. /// Time-related: Know the timetable for your goal; every goal needs a beginning, a middle and an end. .” Karoly is referring to the acronym for: Specific, Measurable, Attainable (or Action-oriented), Relevant (or Realistic) and Time-bound. It was created as a planning model to help realize goals that can be used year-round.

However, he still finds the process of New Year’s resolutions a bit misleading — and a waste of time.

“New Year’s resolutions are an example of weak intentions. Let's do something else,” Karoly said. “Make them lasting. If we were to make them last, if we had to, let's make it realistic. Let's make it smart.”

Reporter , ASU Now

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Persevering amidst war to earn degree

Unable to return from troubled nation, ASU student finds a way to finish degree.
Change of location also meant a change in thesis subject for cultural reasons.
ASU advisers, units made arrangements to make long-distance thesis defense work.
January 15, 2016

With help of ASU faculty and staff, Libyan student finishes his master's from half a globe away

It’s a fight to the finish for most graduate students at the end of their programs, their defenses looming on the horizon. But most graduate students are not sidetracked by actual wars and conflict.

Libyan student Abdelhamid Hamouda was, and he has fought a different kind of academic battle as a result.  

Admitted to Arizona State University’s M.A. in English (linguistics) on a Fulbright Scholarship in 2012, Hamouda was forced by personal issues to return to Benghazi, Libya, a year later to be with his family. When he was ready to return to the U.S. to complete his degree, the complexities of immigration documentation in a politically unstable country blasted his plan.

“I lost my scholarship with only one semester left to get my master’s,” said Hamouda, who has since worked with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in the war-torn region.

Unable to return to defend his thesis and complete his degree, Hamouda felt desolate. But then he reached out to his ASU advisers for help — and help was given.

Several ASU units made exceptional arrangements for Hamouda due to the uniqueness of his situation. Among them: The Department of English offered him a fellowship to cover his tuition while he completed his thesis long-distance, and Graduate Education allowed him to hold a defense via Skype.

But even those efforts were sometimes stymied; due to unexpected power outages in Libya and an intermittent Internet, Hamouda had to travel to Tunisia to get online for his defense.

“It was great to see and talk to my committee after months of communicating via sporadic email,” said Hamouda, who defended on April 13, 2015. “The committee’s questions during the defense helped me think more deeply about my thesis.”  

Hamouda, whose research was on “Arabic-English Code Switching in the Egyptian Talk Show ‘Shabab Beek,’ ” had always been fascinated by how much the hosts and guests of “Shabab Beek” (“The Young Speak”) switch to English.

“While it has a long history, code switchingCode switching occurs when a speaker alternates between two or more languages or dialects during a single conversation. has probably increased lately because of the prevalence of digital devices and the ease of communication across the globe,” said Lutfi Hussein, the only Arabic speaker on Hamouda’s committee. Hussein is a resident faculty member at Mesa Community College and an ASU alum. “Arabic, spoken by close to 300 million people in more than 20 countries, is in direct contact with English, the leading global language in business, education, and communication.

“Since the phenomenon of English-Arabic code switching is likely to increase as more speakers of both languages communicate, Hamouda’s research findings help explain current practices and inform future research in this important linguistic area.”

ASU English linguistics faculty member Matthew Prior also served on Hamouda’s committee. Prior believes that the topic of code switching has relevance in helping bridge Arabic and Western cultures.

“Hamouda’s thesis contributes to a better understanding of the rich diversity of contemporary code switching within the Arabic-speaking world,” he said. “By examining Arabic-English code switching on a popular Egyptian talk show, he helps us recognize how conversational code switching can become part of a public performance for an audience.”

But code switching was not Hamouda’s first choice for his thesis topic. He had already conducted six months of research at ASU on the relationship between language, identity and sexuality in Arab culture.

“When I returned to Libya, I found that my idea was too ambitious for the Libyan context to accept. Thus, I decided not to start my academic career by working on such a sensitive and controversial topic out of respect for my culture,” Hamouda said.

“What impressed me about Mr. Hamouda was his flexibility and his ability to keep on track in circumstances that would have stopped others,” said Karen Adams, a professor of English linguistics and Hamouda’s thesis chair.

“He had to adjust his topic, which meant additional background preparation as well as locating an innovative data source for his research. He did all of this in a context where Internet connections were not reliable and where he needed to be traveling for his work.”

Amid all the recent strife and troubles facing his country, Hamouda — who grew up in Alexandria, Egypt — loves Libya, especially Benghazi, where he resides. 

“I love the breadth and diversity of the Libyan terrain,” he said. “Libya has the longest coast on the Mediterranean (about 1,900 kilometers), mountain ranges including the Green Mountain in the east and the Naffoussa/Western Mountain in the west, and beautiful desert with oases and lakes.”

Hamouda loves to read and play soccer and mostly enjoys walking along the beautiful beaches of Benghazi with his friends and family.

“What I love about Benghazi is the beach, but mostly the people. Benghazi has this beautiful fabric of population from all over Libya. Despite being the second-largest urban center in the country, Benghazi retains a combination of urban life and country life (as in people still know their neighbors very well, check on them, and exchange respects and congratulations). I would call the people of Benghazi, ‘homies.’ ”

During his ASU days, Hamouda felt privileged to study with some of the finest linguists in the world and also took advantage of the wide variety of activities offered by ASU’s student organizations.

“I especially enjoyed events by the Coalition of International Students such as international night and trips,” he said. “I went with them on a trip to the Grand Canyon and another to Disneyland.”

Hamouda’s work with the ICRC — which helps to alleviate sufferings of vulnerable people as they go through the hardships of having to flee their homes — has been gratifying. His duties include visits to displaced-person shelters to identify needs, and with his supervisor, helping to plan distribution of relief items to families. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), there are about 434,000 internally displaced persons across Libya as of July 2015, from many towns and cities such as Benghazi, Derna, Tawergha and Sirte.

Currently, Hamouda teaches at Mediterranean International University, a private university in Benghazi. His class, “Listening & Speaking 1” focuses on improving listening and speaking skills of students learning English as a second language.

“I plan to apply for a teaching position at the University of Benghazi,” said Hamouda, who wants to pursue a Ph.D. “Right now the university is closed due to the fighting, so I will apply once the university resumes activities.”

Hamouda credits both his personal faith as well as ASU staff and faculty for helping him navigate this challenge. 

“I could not emphasize enough how grateful I am to the entire ASU community for standing by me and helping me finish my studies.”

Top photo: Abdelhamid Hamouda poses with an Arizona Army National Guard vehicle at ASU's Homecoming Parade and Block Party in October 2012.

Written by Sheila Luna