Multiple Paths Toward Goals Can Motivate, then Derail Success

Szu-Chi Huang

Szu-Chi Huang

Goal motivation changes as people move closer to their 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, multiple paths toward the goal makes the target 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 reduce emotional arousal, reported 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,” suggested Huang and Zhang.
This research supports Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper’s finding that “more choice is not always better.

Peter Gollwitzer

Peter Gollwitzer

These stages of goal pursuit are 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 behaviors to achieve incentive goals.
In one study, 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.
Half of these volunteers 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 one way:  Buying a beverage.
Significantly more of the customers with a single option joined the loyalty program.

The comparison group received no stamps.
Half these customers could earn more stamps in several ways and more than 1/3 registered for the loyalty program.
Remaining participants had the single option of purchasing more beverages, and registered significantly less frequently for the loyalty program.

This difference between goal pursuit behaviors when close to a consumer goal may apply to personally-meaningful goals like fitness, weight reduction, smoking cessation, and confident public speaking.

Motivation toward a goal 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

according to Tel Aviv Universitys Nira Liberman and Jens Förster of Jacobs University of Bremen and Universiteit van Amsterdam.

Jens Förster

Jens Förster

Similarly, Huang and Zhang demonstrated the motivational impact of choice.
They compared the number of yoghurt shop customers who were required to purchase six flavors in a specific order compared with any order, to receive an incentive.

Volunteers with fewer choices were more likely to achieve the goal of a free yoghurt.
“…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.

A practical application is that nonprofit organizations can benefit from changing giving options when a fund-raising target is nearly met.
At that time, fewer and simpler ways to donate are likely to result in more participation in the campaign.

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


©Kathryn Welds

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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