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Why You Shouldn’t Tweet About What You’re Giving Up for Lent

Associated Press/Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman

Catholics around the world will honor Day Two of Lent by feeling an extra twinge of guilt for having already failed at abstention, but some are pledging to actually give something up: chocolate, Twitter, swearing and alcohol, in that order, at least according to an analysis of what they’re tweeting about. Stephen Smith, founder of, uses Twitter’s Streaming API to pull tweets that match the phrase, “giving up ‘x’ for Lent” and its variants: “give,” “gives,” “gave,” “given up ‘x’ for Lent.” As of this writing, the list—which is updated continuously—takes into account 216,594 tweets sent out since Monday. The most common vice to give up looks to be chocolate, with 8,352 mentions; the most common joke appears to be about giving up school, with 10,207 people making it. Eleven of the top 20 are food- or drink-based: Apart from chocolate and alcohol, there’s soda, fast food, sweets, coffee, junk food, meat, chips, bread and pizza. (See the top ten at the bottom, once you get through the psychology coming up.)

What are the effects of sharing your goals on Twitter? It’s often assumed that the social pressure of announcing your intentions will compel to you follow through, but recent research suggests that it might actually backfire—and not just by irritating your friends and followers.

For a 2010 paper in the journal Psychological Science, a team of psychologists led by New York University’s Peter Gollwitzer looked at how students’ behavior changed when they shared their goals with the psychologists or with their peers. For the first experiment, Gollwitzer and his team recruited 49 students training to be psychologists. They were told they were participating in a study on the motivation of first-year psychology students, and were asked to write down two goals relating to their coursework. Some expressed an intention to take reading assignments more seriously, for instance, or to get to grips with statistics. For half the students—those assigned to the “social reality” condition—the psychologist conducting the experiment read the students’ intentions back to them. Members grouped into the “no-social reality condition,” on the other hand, were told that the page on which they recorded their intentions was included by mistake and would be thrown away. One week later, the students were brought back to the lab and asked to list the days on which they’d acted in accordance with their stated goals. On average, the “no-social reality” group kept their resolutions on more days than the “social-reality” group.

Gollwitzer also carried out a similar experiment with law students. He asked 32 lawyers-in-training were to rank the statement, “I intend to make the best possible use of educational opportunities in law” on a scale of 1 to 9, and included the 30 who ranked this statement at least “5.” For half of the remaining 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 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.

Why? People who make their intentions public may derive a sense of accomplishment just from announcing their goal—“a premature sense of possessing the aspired-to identity”—leaving them less motivated to actually take the difficult steps towards achieving it. In another study, Gollwitzer had law students take a questionnaire on their motivations to become lawyers; the social-reality group read what they’d written down to the assembled researchers and students. For reasons not made entirely clear, the no-social reality group spent this time looking at pictures of landscapes. Then, both groups were asked how much they “felt” like lawyers, and the results were quantified:

In a hierarchical regression analysis, the social reality manipulation was significantly associated with feelings of self-completeness even after number of semesters of law education had been taken into account… As we predicted, participants felt closer to the identity goal of becoming a jurist when their behavioral intentions were recognized than when those intentions remained private.

As promised, the top ten things people are giving up for Lent this year:

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