The Magic of Behavioural Science: what Wiccan rituals can teach us about keeping new year’s resolutions

By Sara Barqawi, Strategist at Ogilvy UK


Year upon year, millions of people globally make promises and pledges to be a better version of themselves, starting in the new year. It’s a phenomenon supported by research by Dai, Milkman & Riis (2013), and it’s called The Fresh Start Effect. It posits that we are more motivated to pursue good habits by using a marker that symbolises a clean slate, such as a new year or a public holiday, to put past and often bad behaviour behind us. According to the Business Insider UK, around 80% of new year’s resolution fail by the second week of February.

If behavioural science has taught us anything, looking to more unconventional users often provides us with answers to society’s behavioural problems. In this case, I took to a Wiccan ritual in the woods, which aimed to welcome in the first New Moon of this new year. Here, participants aimed to set their new year intentions in a ceremony where they set up an altar; cast a circle formation; called the elements; honoured the deities; set intentions by symbolically marking a candle and burning it over time; and finally blessing the cakes and wine and passing it clockwise around the circle. I quickly learnt that they were the nicest people, and were keen to share their beliefs and their intention setting process.

The behavioural science behind the magic

Scarcity – Wiccans don’t practice group rituals in the forest often. In fact, the scarcity behind the fact that this ritual was based on the first new moon of the new year was responsible for the high turnout. It was clear that many people wanted to celebrate their intention setting process. (2018)

Priming – Because of the environment in which intentions were set, resolutions tended to be more meaningful. The group chanting and singing created a tight group   cohesion, and participants were primed to believe in the magic and the quality of nature around. Consequently, the intentions made were more meaningful.

Commitment – Marking the candle with a sharp twig whilst setting your intentions is a public commitment device which makes the resolution concrete. Its physical manifestation in an audience creates a commitment to the intention, making the participant more likely to follow through with it.

Novelty Effect - The ceremony and novelty around setting intentions in the forest stimulates the hippocampus which makes it memorable and therefore more achievable.

Chunking - Wiccans also utilise the clean slate of a new year allows them to put the past behind them. Because there’s a new moon once a month, you can symbolically renew your intentions and reflect on your progress. Chunking makes your goals more digestible by allowing ‘mini’ goals to be made which forces you to evaluate and keep on track with your original intentions.

Timing – The new moon rarely lands on 1st of January. This year, it was greeted in on January 16th, which is far removed from the malaise people feel in the wake of the lack of routine and indulgence bought by the Christmas period. Timing your resolutions perfectly means that you will avoid the false optimism bias.

Avoid Goal Dilution- The Wiccans I met encouraged us to focus on one intention. In doing so, you focus your energies on achieving one goal, and it ensures your efforts won’t be side-tracked by multiple intentions.

How you can adapt your resolutions to be more achievable

* Set your new year’s resolutions when you’re removed from the bygone days of the Christmas period

* Do something small to make setting your new year’s resolution novel. This will ensure it sits at the forefront of your brain, and may be more meaningful.

* Make a physical manifestation of the commitment, just so it nudges you to stay on track.

* When you set your new year’s resolution, start small and aim for a week. Once that’s been achieved, stretch your goals as far as you think you’ll go (but don’t go over a month). Always check in with your own progress. 

* Don’t set more than one goal, or you’ll avert your attention on personal progress too wide 


(Wicca is a modern religion based on pagan practices. Its only rule is ‘An it harm none, do what ye will’)


Dai H, Riis,  J, & Milkman, K L, (2013) The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks That Motivate Aspirational Behaviour. The Wharton School Research Paper No.51.

R. Hanson and J. Simler, The Elephant in the Brain, (Oxford, 2018)


Discover more from the world of behavioural science as Ogilvy Consulting's Behavioural Science Practice explain how the power of positivity can beat the Blue Monday blues here.