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The expectation of intelligent gossip is a powerful motive for serious self-criticism, more powerful than New Year resolutions to improve one’s decision making at work and at home.

What does "improve one's decision making" in the above sentence refer to - "expectation of intelligent gossip" or "New Year resolutions"?

Is there a general rule of thumb to identify what phrases such as this, refer to? Also will there be any change in the meaning if a comma is introduced between "resolutions" and "to"?

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That phrase is a part the whole clause used for comparison: 'New Year resolutions to improve one’s decision making at work and at home' - which is suggested as an example of self-criticism (= some people promise on the New Years Eve to take better decisions 'from now on', and that promise becomes a motive for them, which is 'less powerful' in terms of the whole sentence). So the answer is: that phrase is related to 'New Year resolutions'.

The comma you keep in mind, technically, would change the sense, since if we exclude the (specializing) phrase 'more powerful than New Year resolutions' between the two commas, the sentence will stay (almost) grammatical:

The expectation of intelligent gossip is a powerful motive for serious self-criticism, (a motive) to improve one’s decision making at work and at home.

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