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.