Setting vague goals that are inconsistent with your object, can actually be a good thing, as this study showed.

If the pandemic has inspired you to run a half-marathon in the new year, or take up virtual Pilates and want to get better at it, you have contended with the challenges of goal-setting.

Thanks to research, academics are pretty familiar with how setting goals will impact behavior and performance. We know less about what makes people decide the level of their goals: for example, deciding to work out twice or three times per week.

Together with Mirjam Tuk (Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University), and Bram Van den Bergh (Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University), we embarked on a project to see how consumers can be prompted to set more ambitious goals.

Setting the background scenario

In general, people are constantly setting specific goal levels in our daily lives: exercising twice a weeksaving 20% of our paycheck, attending 80% of our university lectures, and so on.

By setting concrete goals, we tend to be more likely to actually achieve them than if we had just set vague, ‘do-your-best’ goals like “I’ll save as much as possible this month”. This much is already well established.  

What we know less about is the determinants of setting goals, which my project explored through trying to influence people to set more ambitious goals. We looked at two different ways of framing goals:

  1. Considering how many goal-consistent activities to engage in (goal-consistent decisions)
  2. Considering how many goal-consistent activities to forego (goal-inconsistent decisions)

For example, when planning your weekly workouts, you may say “I will work out four times this week” (goal-consistent framing) or “I will rest three days this week” (goal-inconsistent framing). How you frame your goal can make all the difference. Why? Because if you make a decision that is inconsistent with your goals, this triggers negative emotions like guilt and regret, which will then boost your motivation for self-improvement and encourage you to set higher goal levels.

Consequently, instead of working out only three times per week like in the goal-consistent framing example above, you may end up working out four or five times because skipping a gym four times per week may not feel good enough.

Understanding goal-setting

Over a course of seven studies using a mix of ‘real-world’ and lab settings, my project team looked at how people set goal levels in different situations to test different aspects of our motivation theory.

We found that making goal-inconsistent decisions indeed made people more ambitious, and that this held regardless of the way the goal level was presented: whether it is an open-ended response box, a slider scale, or as a range.

Situations that are less critical for goal achievement—for example, skipping the gym vs skipping taking the stairs—proved less likely to provoke those negative emotions mentioned above, and in those situations, people were less likely to set higher goal levels despite exposure to goal-inconsistent framing.

Similarly, if people were provided with some positive affirmation, they also were less likely to experience negative emotions to be compelled to set higher goals.

Conversely, when people were making goal-consistent decisions, neither the relevance of the situation to their goal nor receiving positive affirmation impacted the goal level they set— demonstrating the link between making goal-inconsistent decisions and the emergence of negative emotions.

To rule out other explanations, our team also looked at other possible drivers of the increased goal levels. When ‘choosing’ or ‘rejecting’ a decision (for example, the decision to eat healthy foods vs skipping unhealthy foods for goal-consistent actions, or to skip healthy foods vs eat unhealthy foods for goal-inconsistent ones), the main factor impacting goal levels was still whether or not the action was consistent with their goals, not if they were choosing or rejecting to do it.

We also found that the amount of perceived effort did not impact the goal levels that people set, even when the amount of effort was manipulated to be more or less in a lab setting: the effect still boiled down to the influence of the framing.

So, how exactly does making a goal-inconsistent decision drive us to push ourselves further? As mentioned, that kind of decision can provoke negative feelings about ourselves. We found that these feelings subsequently produced a motivation for self-improvement, which then drove people to set higher goal levels for themselves.

In other words, people tend to seek to resolve those negative feelings by being determined to be better and therefore setting more ambitious goal levels.

So what, and what next?

Taken together, this series of seven studies offers insights into what makes people set higher goals for themselves. Framing a goal-level decision in a way that is inconsistent with your goals leads to negative emotions like regret and disappointment, producing a desire for self-improvement, and leading us to redouble our efforts and set higher goal levels in the aim of getting rid of those pesky negative feelings.

Knowing this tendency can help individuals to achieve their goals with a better understanding of the factors influencing goal setting and goal-achievement. It can also provide guidelines on how to frame  goals in a more ambitious way, and how to use the mere thought of ‘failure’ (goal-inconsistent decisions) as fuel.

Professionals in the field of fitness building and weight loss, or public health professionals aiming to encourage the public to follow health guidelines, can also make use of this information. It could also help managers to learn more about how to motivate their employees. By understanding how people set goal levels, we can nudge people toward their goals in a more effective way.

Keep in mind the following:

  1. When coming up with a goal, frame it in a goal-inconsistent manner. That is, say “I will skip two workouts per week” rather than “I will go to three workouts per week”.
  2. Lean into negative feelings caused by framing your goal in a goal-inconsistent way, and use them to fuel more ambitious goal setting, and subsequently your goal achievement.
  3. If you are helping others to achieve their goals, recognize the power of a simple intervention. Framing an action in a ‘goal-inconsistent’ way (choosing how many targeted actions to skip) can help push people to set higher goals.