Why Modest Goals Appeal to Us
Let’s say you’re wondering whether to set more money aside this coming year. You could go for a modest goal, such as increasing your savings by 1%, or pick a more ambitious one. You could also tell yourself: “I won’t increase my savings, but I’ll make sure to maintain whatever savings I already have.” New research by global school INSEAD, IE Business School, and Pamplin College of Business shows that you’re more likely to think that modestly increasing your savings is the most achievable of the three goals.
But isn’t it easier to maintain your savings than to increase them? Logically, yes, but here’s what you need to know. When we evaluate goals, we first consider the gap between the current and desired states. If that gap seems small enough, most of us feel quite encouraged. We think: “How difficult could it be? It’s an easy win! I can definitely do this!”
Attainment versus maintenance goals: Perceived difficulty and impact on goal choice
We argue that individuals monitor and evaluate attainment and maintenance goals differently. Attainment goals feature a salient current-end state discrepancy that is processed more than the corresponding match for maintenance goals. For maintenance goals, for which a salient discrepancy is absent, contextual influences on goal success/failure receive more processing than for attainment goals. Thus, objectively more difficult attainment goals may be judged as easier than maintenance goals, when they feature sufficiently small discrepancies, or when context information is unfavorable. Study 1 establishes this core effect. Study 2 shows that thought listings capturing the relative processing of the current-end state discrepancy (match) and context information mediate perceived goal difficulty. Study 3 shows that the favorability of context information moderates the effect. Study 4 establishes joint difficulty evaluations as a boundary condition. Studies 5 and 6 (and Appendix B) show that such goal difficulty judgments affect consequential goal choices in real-world financial, workplace, and shopping situations.
Attain at the West, Maintain at the East: Goal Framing Matters
Let’s say that you run a bank. You decide to give more credit to your good customers. Should you give it those who increase their account balance by any amount (even as small as 1 euro) per year? Or to those who just maintain their account? Which offer would they find more appealing?
Now imagine that you are running a charity and you want to increase repeated donations. Should you ask your contributors to pre-commit to making the same donation again and again? Or should you ask them to pre-commit to increasing their donation every time they donate, even if the increase is just only 1 cent? Which setup would they find more motivating?
Can such small differences (1 euro, 1 cent, etc.) have an impact on consumer behavior, consumer welfare, and business outcomes? And what impact, exactly?
How to Frame Goals to Increase Motivation
Most of us have set goals for ourselves before, whether it’s losing weight, saving money or training for a marathon. Goals help us to focus our minds on achieving what we set out to do. We know that setting goals makes us more likely to attain what we want. But there are differences in what motivates people to achieve goals, which has implications for managers who have to use them to generate a behavioural response, either in customers or employees.
For some of us, we achieve our goals easily. We find ourselves highly motivated and we set out to achieve them, but maintaining them becomes a real challenge. Keeping to our weight or a grade average at school, for example, can seem the harder part of the journey. But for others, it’s the opposite. That is, we feel motivated to tend to what we’ve already achieved, with the attainment of the goal being the real struggle.
These differences, in the ease with which we pursue attainment goals versus maintenance goals, depend on how the individual sees themselves in relation to others. In our recent paper Pursuing Attainment versus Maintenance Goals: The Interplay of Self-Construal and Goal Type on Consumer Motivation, Haiyang Yang, Antonios Stamatogiannakis and I found that people from more independent cultures, such as the United States for example, find attaining goals more motivating than maintaining them and those from more interdependent cultures, such as China, were more motivated by maintenance than attainment.
Pursuing Attainment versus Maintenance Goals: The Interplay of Self-Construal and Goal Type on Consumer Motivation
This research examines how self-construal (i.e., independent vs. interdependent) and goal type (i.e., attaining a new state vs. maintaining the current state) are conceptually linked and jointly impact consumer behavior. The results of five experiments and one field study involving different operationalizations of self-construal and goal pursuit activities, suggest that attainment (maintenance) goals can be more motivating for participants with a more independent (interdependent) self-construal, and that differences in salient knowledge about pursuing these goals are one potential mechanism underlying this effect. This interaction effect was found within a single culture, between cultures, when self-construal was experimentally manipulated or measured, and when potential confounding factors like regulatory focus were controlled for. Importantly, the effect was shown to impact consumers’ goal pursuit behaviors—losing vs. maintaining weight—in the field. These findings add to theory and offer insights, to both consumers and managers, on how the goal types can be leveraged.