The XX Factor

Giving Up Something For Lent? Shhh.

Hope he’s not on Twitter!

Photo by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Hello, Gentile friends! Have you decided what you are abstaining from for Lent yet? (Probably! It’s already Friday. Lent started Wednesday.) If you want to increase your chances of trampling temptation into the dirt for the next 38 days, a 2010 paper from the journal Psychological Science recommends you do the following once you’ve landed on a sacrifice: Tell no one.

The paper reports on two interlocking studies by researchers from New York University. In the first, 49 first-year psychology students wrote down two academic goals each (e.g. “I will take reading assignments more seriously” or “I will unlock the mysteries of the human mind”). Half the students stood by while the experimenter read their words back to them. The remaining students were told the goal question had been included by mistake and that their responses would be thrown away. Fast forward one week: All of the participants returned to the lab and notched the days on which they’d conformed to their resolutions. You might expect those in the first group to report better track records—they were the ones whose goals were on social display—but the opposite was true. Students whose words had remained private did a better job honoring their plans, while those who’d been exposed showed less willpower.

In a second study, 32 law students ranked the statement, “I intend to make the best possible use of educational opportunities in law” on a scale of one to nine. (All but two wrote down scores higher than five.) Here is the New Republic’s Alice Robb:

For half of the students—the ones randomly assigned to the “social reality” condition—the psychologist would read the students’ responses back to them, as if to confirm they’d heard correctly. In the “no-social reality” group, the aspiring lawyers simply dropped their responses into a box, ensuring they’d remain anonymous. Next, the law students were asked to help the psychologists design a study package for use in law schools, and were given 45 minutes to try to solve a series of cases being considered for inclusion, but were told they could leave earlier if they wanted. The group whose intentions remained anonymous spent longer working on the cases.

The researchers argue that simply articulating your dream helps you feel closer to attaining it. You “derive a sense of accomplishment” from having publicly stated a goal; all the messy details of follow-through suddenly seem less important. (You’ve got a plan, you’re practically already there! The brass tacks will take care of themselves.) Also, voicing one’s intentions can be a way of solidifying a persona—I am the type of student who aspires to X—that ultimately makes the X redundant. If everyone already knows you think “educational opportunities in law” matter, then why bother working late?

Robb tied the study’s findings to Lent to conclude that, if you wish to share your abnegations on social media, you could be strewing rocks across your own path to virtue (as well as irritating your friends). She also reveals the top ten most-mentioned sacrifices on Twitter this year, according to a list by OpenBible’s Stephen Smith:

1. School
2. Chocolate
3. Twitter
4. Swearing
5. Alcohol
6. Soda
7. Social networking
8. Sweets
9. Fast food
10. Lent

They may be destined to fail, but at least these Tweeps haven’t given up their sense of humor.