Why Is It So Hard To Reach Our Behavior Goals?

Margaret C. Campbell, Phd | Professor | Marketing Chair, Doctoral Curriculum Program Committee 437 Leeds School of Business University of Colorado at Boulder Boulder, CO 80309-0419MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Margaret C. Campbell, Phd | Professor | Marketing

Chair, Doctoral Curriculum Program Committee
437 Leeds School of Business
University of Colorado at Boulder
Boulder, CO 80309-0419

Medical Research: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Dr. Campbell: People try to maintain healthy body weights, attain academic and career success, save money for a car, a house, or retirement, and achieve a host of other goals that require repeated, goal-consistent behaviors. Unfortunately, consumers’ efforts often fall short. For example, 68% of Americans are overweight (Weight Control Information Network 2010), 46% who begin college do not graduate within six years (Associated Press 2006), and although 93% say that saving for retirement is important, only about 60% are actually saving (TIAA-CREF 2010) and approximately 50% have accumulated less than $25,000 (Helman, VanDehrei and Copeland 2007). Understanding goal pursuit and consumers’ choices to continue effort toward a goal that requires repeated goal-consistent behaviors is thus important. People need to be able to make progress on important goals that substantially impact their quality of life.

Monitoring the influence of behavior on distance from a focal goal has been identified as important for successful goal pursuit – such as weight loss. In seven experiments, we find that people tend to have a “progress bias” such that they perceive that goal-consistent behaviors (such as avoiding eating a piece of cake) help progress more than equivalent-sized goal-inconsistent behaviors (such as eating a piece of cake) hurt progress. An experiment on exercise and eating shows that the progress bias can lead to poor understanding of progress and thus, premature release of the goal. In this study, the progress bias resulted in people with a goal of expending more calories than they consumed ended up consuming more than they expended.

Medical Research: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Dr. Campbell: This research is meaningful because it provides evidence of a persistent tendency for people to mis-estimate the effects of their consistent versus inconsistent behaviors. We think that understanding this bias can help people to avoid it. Clinicians and patients can focus on more careful monitoring of patients’ behaviors so that they have better insight into their actual goal progress. For example, knowing that there is a tendency to think that “good” behaviors are great and “bad” behaviors are not so bad, patients can be encouraged to carefully record both types of behaviors to assess their actual progress.

Medical Research: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Dr. Campbell: Further research could identify interventions to help patients better understand the effects of their behaviors on their goal progress and to study the extent to which this can help with goal achievement. For example, research on more careful consideration of both “energy in” and “energy out” on weight goals would be useful.


The Progress Bias in Goal Pursuit: When One Step Forward Seems Larger than One Step Back

Margaret C. Campbell
University of Colorado at Boulder

Caleb Warren
Texas A&M University – Department of Marketing
January 30, 2015
Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 41, February 2015
Mays Business School Research Paper No. 2015-15


MedicalResearch.com Interview with: Margaret C. Campbell, Phd | Professor | Marketing (2015). Why Is It So Hard To Reach Our Behavior Goals? 

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Last Updated on March 8, 2015 by Marie Benz MD FAAD