Multiple Paths Toward Goals Can Motivate, then Derail Success

Szu-Chi Huang

Szu-Chi Huang

Goal motivation changes as people move closer to target, according to Stanford’s Szu-chi Huang and Ying Zhang of University of Texas, who built on Heinz Heckhausen’s Action-Phase Model.

Ying Zhang

Ying Zhang

In the first stages of effort toward a goal, multiple paths toward the goal makes the goal seem attainable, noted Huang and Zhang.

Albert Bandura

Albert Bandura

This perception of “self-efficacy” – belief in their ability to achieve a goal by applying effort and persistence – provides motivation to continue goal striving and reduced emotional arousal according to Stanford’s Albert Bandura.

Clark Hull

Clark Hull

In contrast, when people are close to achieving a goal, a single goal path provides greater motivation, consistent with Clark Hull’s Goal Gradient Theory that motivation increases closer to the goal.

Sheena Iyengar

Sheena Iyengar

A single “route to the finish” reduces “cognitive load” of considering alternate “hows” to reach the goal, noted Huang and Zhang.
Like Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper’s finding that “more choice is not always better” for consumers, too much choice can derail last steps toward a goal.

Peter Gollwitzer

Peter Gollwitzer

These stages of goal pursuit can be characterized by differing mindsets: “Deliberative Mindset” when considering work toward a goal contrasted with “Implemention Mindset” when planning execution steps to achieve a goal, according to NYU’s Peter Gollwitzer, Heinz Heckhausen, and Birgit Steller of University of Heidelberg.

Huang, a former account director at advertising giant JWT, evaluated customer loyalty program behavior toward incentive goals.
In the first of several studies, she issued two versions of an invitation to join a coffee-shop loyalty program.

Half of the participants were given a “quick start” to earning 12 stamps required to earn a free coffee by providing them with the first six when they began.
Of the volunteers who received a “head start” on earning an incentive reward, half had multiple ways to earn additional reward stamps:  Buying coffee, tea or any other drink.
More than 25% of this multi-option/head start group joined the loyalty program.

The other half of the quick start volunteers could earn more stamps in only one way:  Buying a beverage.
In contrast, significantly more of the “head start”/ single option customers joined the loyalty program: 40%

The remaining participants were the comparison group, and received no stamps.
Like the head start group, half these customers could earn more stamps in several ways and 37.5% registered for the loyalty program.
In contrast, the remaining participants had the single option of purchasing more beverages, and registered much less frequently for the loyalty program: 21.6%.

These results show a clear contrast between goal pursuit behaviors when close to a consumer goal, and this premise can be tested with personally-meaningful goals like pursuing fitness, weight reduction, smoking cessation, confident public speaking and other challenges.
In addition to goal proximity, motivation is also determined by

  • Goal value, related to “high level construal,” and “low level construal
  • Expectancy of success, based on probability, difficulty, sufficiency, necessity
Nira Liberman

Nira Liberman

argue Tel Aviv Universitys Nira Liberman and Jens Förster of Jacobs University of Bremen and Universiteit van Amsterdam.
However, Huang and Zhang did not fully assess their participants’ construal level or expectancy of success, leading to further opportunities to test their findings.

Jens Förster

Jens Förster

Related research by Huang and Zhang demonstrated the motivational impact of choice:  They compared the number of yoghurt shop customers who reached the incentive target when participants were required purchase six flavors in a specific order compared with any order they chose.

Volunteers with fewer choices were more likely to achieve the incentive goal, earning a free yoghurt.
People fail to realize that relatively rigid structures can often simplify goal pursuit by removing the need to make choices, especially when people are already well into the process,” explained Huang

This principle may explain dieters’ success in achieving weight loss goals when they follow a specific meal plan, which reduces the “cognitive load” of considering food choices, but which usually leads to regained weight when boredom and “habituation” set in.

Huang pointed to practical implications for marketers and non-profit development executives: Loyalty programs should introduce a tiered processes to earn rewards, with many options for those beginning to accrue credits, and more limited selections for long-term members.

Similarly, she noted that nonprofits may restructure giving options at the end of a fund raising campaign when the financial target is nearly met by reducing the number of ways to donate.
Gyms, as well, can offer many program options at the beginning of each year to attract non-exercisers, and a single different program to relatively fit customers.

Many people have no problem starting a goal, but they often find themselves losing motivation in the middle of the journey,” so Huang is evaluating the potential effectiveness of encouraging those people with “social information,” such as messages about friends’ blood donations, movie ratings, fitness accomplishments, survey completion, and weight loss attainment, for example, to increase goal pursuit.

-*How do you maintain motivation when you are close to achieving a goal?


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3 thoughts on “Multiple Paths Toward Goals Can Motivate, then Derail Success

  1. Rajesh Aundhe

    Cognitive bias is observed in choosing the best way towards a goal , even if you need to choose from multiple ways .Working out a ‘prototype’ , mind mapping it, may reduce this . Multiple paths symbolize insecurity .Goals without defined timelines can have luxury of meandering thro multiple paths.

    1. kathrynwelds Post author

      Thanks for noting the importance of timelines linked to goals, Rajesh. Most of the research cited did not emphasize temporal milestones or “gates”. As you note, these are crucial to enable continued motivation and measurable progress toward business and personal goals.

  2. Pingback: Paradox of Potential: May be More Appealing than Achievement in Job Search | Kathryn Welds | Curated Research and Commentary

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