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Advisors, Don’t Be Dichotomous Thinkers

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Pundits like to make fun of the tradition of New Year’s resolutions, pointing out all the failures to actually follow through on those resolutions. Yet Americans keep making them, year after year. According to the Statistic Brain Research Institute, 45% of us usually make resolutions, but only 8% succeed in following them.

Perhaps not surprisingly, behavioral scientists have studied the factors that lead to success or failure in achieving resolutions, or as the academics put it, “self-initiated behavior change.” It turns out that those who make explicit resolutions are much more likely to be among the 8% who succeed. “People who explicitly make resolutions are 10 times more likely to attain their goals than people who don’t explicitly make resolutions,” the Institute reports. Research has also shown that the type of resolution made does not predict success: Folks who want to lose weight and those who want to strengthen a personal relationship report the same levels of success. Makes sense, right? But there’s more to the story of how to successfully change behavior.

In a fascinating article by Sadie Dingfelder in the January 2004 Monitor on Psychology academic journal, John Norcross, a professor of psychology at the University of Scranton and a practicing psychotherapist, reported on a longitudinal (two-year) study he and colleagues conducted on resolution makers. Those who succeeded used strategies like stimulus control (avoiding going to a smoky bar after resolving to quit smoking; this was 2004), or what Roman Catholics of a certain age may remember as “avoiding the near occasions of sin.” Those who succeeded tended to do one thing and tended to share a common belief: They rewarded themselves for their changed behavior and they believed in “self-efficacy,” i.e., they believed in themselves, that they could successfully make the change they desired.

What does this have to do with you and your clients? I suggest that the research shows that changing behavior is possible, but you have to start by drawing up a realistic plan. That plan should include strategies to avoid environments where it’s easier, more convenient, maybe even encouraged to engage in the behavior you want to change. Just thinking about the change, before and after you make the plan, doesn’t actually help you initiate and maintain behavioral changes, the research shows.

There’s another clear finding from the psychological research. Nearly everyone will falter at some point. The key to success is not avoiding falling down, but not staying down.

The late psychologist G. Alan Marlatt, an expert on addiction at the University of Washington, also looked at resolution makers to determine what gave them the greatest chance for success. For cigarette smokers who resolved to quit, Marlatt discovered that most successful quitters did some smoking during the process of quitting. Those who eventually failed to quit, he found, tended to “fall into the trap of dichotomous thinking,” meaning everything was black or white, yes or no; there was nothing in between. Smoking one cigarette was not seen as a temporary setback, but utter failure. They couldn’t see that life is made up of the gray; that some days we’re wonderful to be with and some days we’re horrible. What’s important is that you have a clear vision of who you want to be, and you strive daily to become the best you can be. And remember that perfectly straight roads are not only uncommon, but boring.

As the New Year dawns, think of the great power you can wield in helping your clients achieve their goals, which might require that they change their behavior. Think of how your quiet support, and sharing with your clients the education and perspective you possess, can make a major difference in helping them live happier, more productive lives. Think of the families you’ve helped, and those you will help, and the other people those families have helped.

Regardless of what happens in the markets or what changes are made to the tax code or what the Federal Reserve decides, a professional advice-giver is a change-maker and a wealth preservationist.

And it all begins with a plan.


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