Thursday, October 10, 2013

Specific plans do not always help

A lot of research over the last several years has focused on how to help people to achieve their goals.  One of the results that has emerged from this work is that it is useful to form specific plans.  For example, Peter Gollwitzer’s work on implementation intentions suggests that envisioning a specific plan can increase people’s ability to perform new actions.

Are these specific plans always helpful?

A paper by Claudia Townsend and Wendy Liu to be published in the December, 2012 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that specific plans can backfire when people see themselves as being far from achieving their goal.  The idea is that if you form a specific plan that you think will be nearly impossible to achieve, then it is upsetting to create that plan.  In that case, you may actually decrease your commitment to the goal.

In one naturalistic study, they contacted people who were about to receive the tax rebate that was given out to many households in the United States in 2008 during the recession.  Some people were asked to form a specific plan about whether they would spend the rebate, donate it, or save it.  Other people were not asked to do any planning.  Participants were asked a number of other questions including whether they are generally good at saving money for the long-term.  After the rebates were sent, people were asked to report what they did with it. 

The group that did not plan saved about half of the money they received.  People who reported that they are good at saving money and formed a specific plan saved significantly more than half their money, while those who reported they are bad at saving money and formed a specific plan saved significantly less than half their rebate. 

This result along might just suggest that planning had no impact at all on behavior.  People who are good at saving are just better at saving money than those who are bad at saving money.

In another study, a planning group was asked to list all of the meals and snacks they would eat for the rest of the day.  An unrelated-planning group planned their studies for the rest of the day.  A third group did no planning.  During the study, participants were also asked to rate whether they felt they were overweight, of average weight, or underweight.  After the study was over, participants were offered a snack as part of their participation.  The snack was either an unhealthy food (a peanut-butter cup), or a healthy food (raisins).  Participants could also refuse to take a snack. 

Participants who felt they were overweight were much more likely to take the unhealthy snack than the healthy snack if they planned out their meals than if they did not.  Those who felt they were of average weight were less likely to take the unhealthy snack than the healthy snack.  Another study in this series suggested that planning meals made the people who reported that they were overweight feel more distress than those who were of average weight. 

These results are surprising given the previous research suggesting that specific planning helps people to achieve their goals.  What is the difference here?

One possibility lies in an important difference between the planning done in this study and the implementation intentions suggested by Gollwitzer and his colleagues.  In this study, people just planned for what they would like to do ideally.  They suggested how much of their rebate they would like to save or how much food they wanted to eat.  Implementation intentions have an important additional step.  They require that people think through all of the specific obstacles they will face in achieving their goal and to plan for them.

It is one thing to give an ideal for what you would like to achieve.  These ideals can be quite distressing to form when you think you are far from your goal.  However, if you plan for the obstacles, then you have a better chance at handling them when they arise.  A person trying to lose weight can plan to say “No, thank you.” when offered the chance to eat an unhealthy snack.  Without thinking about the obstacles, though, it is hard to have a ready-made course of action when roadblocks inevitably come up. 

So, the results of this study really demonstrate the danger of forming the wrong kind of plan.  It is not enough just to think about what you would like to do ideally.  To succeed at the really hard goals in life, it is crucial to figure out what can go wrong and be ready to address the obstacles.