Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338
July 21, 2003
Self-change goals set too high, professor says
If your beach-abs or weight-loss resolutions have already come and gone, here’s one possible reason: a University of Guelph researcher has found that people are overly optimistic when it comes to setting self-improvement goals.
Psychology professor Ian Newby-Clark conducted two studies of people bent on self-improvement – in Windsor and in Guelph – that focused on exercise plans and habits. The findings reveal that people don’t imagine the real obstacles they’ll face. “When people are constructing a plan for self-change, they make it a rosy picture with few obstructions,” he said. “But their over-the-top goals are often unrealistic.”
In the studies, Newby-Clark asked people what goals they hoped to achieve and their best-case and worst-case scenarios in attaining them. Next, he asked participants to describe their idea of the most realistic action plan. Although people recognized possible problems that could hinder their achievement – such as sickness, accidents or other unforeseen circumstances – few actually applied them to their own plans, he said. “While people acknowledge reasonable impediments, they rarely consider that could happen to them,” he said. “People are setting themselves up for a fall.”
The research, sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, could help people increase the accuracy of their predictions by improving their ability to come up with impediments easily, Newby-Clark said. People might be able to predict more realistic attainment of goals by getting used to imagining potential obstacles and finding ways around them before they occur. “Eventually, people could reach a point where their expectations are more reasonable, and this way they’ll be less disappointed about their exercise behaviour.”
Newby-Clark’s previous work on self-change focused on people’s habits with homework and completing income tax returns. The same trends apply to these areas of goal-setting as well, he said. He hopes that in helping people anticipate obstacles to success more effectively, they will be better equipped to avoid them.
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