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Goals as Excuses or Guides: The Liberating Effect of Perceived Goal Progress on Choice

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Consumer choices are often driven by multiple goals (e.g., career and family), each of which if viewed in isolation may appear to suggest conflicting choices. This article examines the effect of initial goal pursuit on consumers' interest in pursuing unrelated or even conflicting goals. Four studies were conducted to test whether perceived goal progress hinders the pursuit of the focal goal. These studies demonstrate that in the course of self-regulation progress along one goal liberates people to pursue inconsistent goals. Furthermore, merely planning to make goal progress in the future may facilitate incongruent choice of immediate action. (c) 2005 by JOURNAL OF CONSUMER RESEARCH, Inc..
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2005 by JOURNAL OF CONSUMER RESEARCH, Inc. Vol. 32 December 2005
All rights reserved. 0093-5301/2005/3203-0004$10.00
Goals as Excuses or Guides: The Liberating
Effect of Perceived Goal Progress on Choice
AYELET FISHBACH
RAVI DHAR*
Consumer choices are often driven by multiple goals (e.g., career and family),each
of which if viewed in isolation may appear to suggest conflicting choices. This
article examines the effect of initial goal pursuit on consumers’ interest in pursuing
unrelated or even conflicting goals. Four studies were conducted to test whether
perceived goal progress hinders the pursuit of the focal goal. Thesestudies dem-
onstrate that in the course of self-regulation progress along one goal liberates
people to pursue inconsistent goals. Furthermore, merely planning to make goal
progress in the future may facilitate incongruent choice of immediate action.
People’s choices are usually driven by multiple under-
lying goals, each of which if viewed in isolation may
appear conflicting. For example, individuals simultaneously
believe in saving for retirement as well as taking luxurious
vacations, doing well academically and socializing actively
with friends, and so forth. Previous research has often por-
trayed the self-regulation processes as involving setting ab-
stract goals that then motivate consistent choice of actions
(Gollwitzer 1999; Higgins 1997; Locke and Latham 1990).
The empirical work supporting this basic premise has fo-
cused mainly on situations where the individual has set a
single goal. If individuals simultaneously hold multiple
goals, an account of consumer behavior needs to address
the manner in which consumers pursue sequential choices
among these potentially conflicting goals.
This article examines subsequent consumer choice fol-
lowing initial goal pursuit. We propose that when individuals
hold multiple goals, the pursuit or the intention to pursue
the initial goal (hereafter referred to as the focal goal) may
liberate the individual to subsequently pursue unrelated or
even conflicting goals (e.g., succumbing to temptation). For
instance, the opening of a new savings account may suggest
to the individuals that one’s goal of saving for the future is
being actively pursued, and, as a result, new savers might
become more willing to spend money on indulgences. Spe-
cifically, this article explores the hypothesis that actions that
are used to infer goal progress act to liberate the individual
and thereby increase the likelihood of pursuing incongruent
actions, whereas the same actions interpreted in terms of
*Ayelet Fishbach is assistant professor at the Graduate School of Busi-
ness, University of Chicago, 5807 South Woodlawn Avenue, Chicago, IL
60637 (ayelet.fishbach@ChicagoGSB.edu). Ravi Dhar is professor at the
School of Management, Yale University, 135 Prospect Street, New Haven,
CT 06511 (ravi.dhar@yale.edu). Correspondence: Ayelet Fishbach.
goal commitment elicit a tendency to subsequently maintain
the pursuit of the focal goal.
Goals as Excuses or Guides: Goal Progress
versus Goal Commitment
Goals are seen as cognitive structures that can be rep-
resented in terms of movement and progress toward some
abstract and desirable end state or in terms of commitment
to a fixed and desirable end state. Goal commitment is de-
fined as an inference concerning the strength of a goal,
whereas goal progress refers to the pursuit of a previously
defined goal. A major area of goal research has focused on
identifying different factors that affect goal commitment
(Atkinson and Raynor 1978; Feather 1990; Gollwitzer 1999;
Locke and Latham 1990) more than perceptions of goal
progress (Carver and Scheier 1998; Soman and Shi 2003).
Generally speaking, goal commitment is viewed as a con-
tinuous variable, and an action toward a certain goal is seen
as increasing the commitment to actions that favor the same
goal. Although this is a widely accepted finding in the goal
literature, the empirical evidence is limited to studies where
a single goal is salient, that is, performance on task is mea-
sured for a single goal.
In most real-life situations, people hold several different
goals that they intend to pursue. Furthermore, environmental
cues, social opportunities, and personal factors can also ac-
tivate these different and potentially inconsistent motiva-
tions (Kruglanski et al. 2002). For instance, people may want
to enjoy culinary delights while also wanting a slim figure,
or they may wish to purchase gadgets and save money for
the future. As these examples demonstrate, multiple goals
do not need to be equally central to an individual’s identity
and may create a self-control dilemma whenever the ac-
complishment of some higher priority goals conflicts with
GOALS AS EXCUSES OR GUIDES 371
other lower-order goals. Following recent research, goals
are broadly defined to include long-term objectives as well
as salient short-term temptations (e.g., Trope and Fishbach
2000).
The regulation of multiple goals requires the individual
to consider both the progress in moving toward the goal as
well as the strength of commitment to the goal. We propose
that when individuals hold multiple goals, an action toward
a goal can result in a greater focus on goal progress or on
commitment. Furthermore, this difference in relative focus
on goal progress versus goal commitment will potentially
have opposite implications for regulating behavior through
subsequent actions. Specifically, if an initial action is used
to infer one’s general level of commitment to a goal, it is
likely to be followed by a similar choice of actions (e.g.,
Bem 1972; Soman and Cheema 2004). Our main hypothesis
is to show that if this very same initial action is used to
infer one’s general level of goal progress (i.e., movement
toward a goal), it should be followed by choice of actions
that pursue other, even inconsistent, goals or temptations.
Balancing between Multiple Activated Goals
People often cope with multiple activated goals by either
maintaining the pursuit of a single goal or alternating be-
tween different and potentially contradictory goals (Dhar
and Simonson 1999; Kivetz and Simonson 2002). When
maintaining a single goal, individuals would be most likely
to maintain its pursuit by choosing subsequent actions that
are consistent (Bargh et al. 2001). However, when individ-
uals have multiple goals, they can choose to pursue each in
sequence by focusing on course of actions until the focal
goal is met or simultaneously by choosing different actions,
some of which may be incongruent with the focal goal.
Previous research in several different domains suggeststhat
people demonstrate some degree of balancing among dif-
ferent conflicting motivational tendencies in multiple
choices when the presence of multiple goals is implied and
variety seeking becomes a dominant motivation in consumer
choice (Ariely and Levav 2000; Drolet 2002; Ratner, Kahn,
and Kahneman 1999; Read and Loewenstein 1995). How-
ever, the presence of multiple goals is only a precondition
for actions that alternate between contradictory goals.
More important, we propose that self-regulation through
balancing requires that a person focus on goal progress. In
such cases, pursuing an activity suggests to the person that
progress has been made and the pursuit of the focal goal is
relatively satisfactory. As a result, individuals should be
more likely to switch to pursuit of alternative goals, espe-
cially when the progress is fast. This also follows from the
finding that when people have multiple goals, the choice of
actions that neglect the pursuit of one goal at the expense
of another is likely to be more aversive than when only a
single goal is salient (Dhar and Simonson 1999). Thus, the
switch to actions in the pursuit of another goal is easier
when the person can point to a sense of progress or accom-
plishment on the focal goal. However, this switch is made
harder when the same actions are used to infer goal com-
mitment rather than progress. When people view the pur-
suit of a focal goal as a defining characteristic of their self-
concept, pursuing it cannot possibly justify withdrawing
its pursuit.
Borrowing from Future Progress and Consuming Past
Progress. The aforementioned analysis further suggests
that focusing on goal progress can justify a choice of in-
consistent actions even before engaging in actions to pursue
the focal goal. In other words, the order of the initial and
subsequent actions that pursue different goals should not
matter as much for balancing considerations to take place.
If anything, people should be at least as equally willing to
borrow from expected future progress of a focal goal and
choose to pursue goal-incongruent actions beforehand as
they are to act on past progress by choosing to pursue in-
congruent means afterward. However, since expectations
of future progress are subject to cognitive and motivational
biases, the tendency to balance between actions should
reflect these biases as well. Thus, we predict that over-
optimistic evaluations (e.g., Gilovich, Kerr, and Medvec
1993) will often lead individuals to overestimate their fu-
ture goal progress and therefore more likely to switch to
pursuing another goal.
The Present Research
Toward the above aims we conducted four studies. The
first study is a field study investigating the effect of per-
ceived progress toward one’s goal of an ideal weight on the
choice of high-calorie food. Study 2 tested whether per-
ceiving greater goal progress in the academic domain me-
diates the effect on the subsequent pursuit of inconsistent
actions. Study 3 tested whether individuals who focus on
goal progress disengage from a focal goal, whereas those
who think of goal commitment continue to pursue the focal
goal. Finally, study 4 examined whether (overoptimistic)
assessments of future progress toward keeping in good shape
increase the likelihood of pursuing actions inconsistent with
this focal goal in the present.
STUDY 1: PERCEIVED GOAL PROGRESS
AND CHOICE
In this field study we looked at female dieters to see how
a manipulation of goal progress would impact their pref-
erence for high-calorie food. We induced a sense of fast
versus slow progress toward the goal of having a slim figure
by asking the dieters to indicate how far off they are from
their ideal weight on a scale that either had 5 lbs. or 25
lbs. as its end point. The wide scale (25 lbs.) would lead
dieters to believe they had made sufficient progress since
the same discrepancy from one’s ideal weight (e.g., of 4
lbs.) would appear small (e.g., 16% of the wide scale but
80% of the narrow scale). Thus, wide (vs. narrow) scale
produces smaller visual discrepancy between one’s actual
and ideal weight, which increases one’s sense of progress.
The response of interest was whether dieters, who indicate
372 JOURNAL OF CONSUMER RESEARCH
FIGURE 1
CHOOSING AN APPLE VERSUS A CHOCOLATE BAR AS A
FUNCTION OF PERCEIVED PROGRESS TOWARD THE
GOAL OF WEIGHT LOSS
their discrepancy from an ideal weight on a wide (as opposed
to narrow) scale, would also be less likely to adhere to their
dietary constraints (e.g., more likely to choose a candy bar
over a healthy snack).
To confirm the link between the scale type and sense of
progress, we conducted a pilot study with an independent
sample of 23 female dieters from the same population. Par-
ticipants who drew a line to indicate the distance from their
ideal weight on a wide scale indicated having made more
progress toward their ideal weight ( on a seven-Mp5.00
point scale), compared with participants who did the same
on a narrow scale ( , , ).Mp2.89 t(21) p3.54 p!.01
Procedure
Based on previous findings that females, more than males,
pursue the goal of weight watching and consume chocolate
candies (e.g., Fishbach, Friedman, and Kruglanski 2003),
45 females who are undergraduates at a large midwestern
university participated in the experiment for $1. Three ad-
ditional participants indicated that they would not like to
lose weight and were therefore excluded from any further
analysis. This study employed a weight-loss scale (wide vs.
narrow) between-subjects design.
The participants were handed an experimental survey ti-
tled, “How Far Are You from Your Ideal Weight?” In this
survey they were asked to fill in their current weight in a
box presented in the center of an empty arrow extending
outward in both directions and were then asked to color the
arrow all the way to the point that represented their ideal
weight. It was explained to them that they could either color
the right side of the arrow to indicate their interest ingaining
weight or they could color the left side of the arrow to
indicate their interest in losing weight. The experimental
manipulation referred to the scale labels that appeared below
the empty arrow. In the narrow scale these end points were
5 lbs. and +5 lbs. In the wide scale these end points were
25 lbs. and +25 lbs. Consistent with the pretest results,
the different end points were expected to elicit more col-
oring, representing greater required progress, in the narrow
(vs. wide) scale.
The experimental survey was embedded within a series
of unrelated surveys in order to ensure that participants were
unaware of the effect of the manipulation on their subse-
quent choice. Upon completion of the surveys, participants
were offered a parting gift and were asked to choose between
a chocolate bar and an apple. Our past research revealed
that chocolate bars are seen as interfering more with dieting
than apples. Finally, a thorough debriefing by the end of the
experiment ensured that none of the participants was aware
of our hypothesis when choosing a parting gift (apple vs.
chocolate bar).
Results and Discussion
Manipulation Check. On average, participants colored
80% (indicating 3.92 lbs.) of the weight-loss length on the
narrow scale but only 46% (indicating 11.67 lbs.) of the
weight-loss length on the wide scale. Thus, although their
ideal weight was actually farther off on the wide scale, it
seemed to be visually more farther off on the narrow scale.
As in our pilot study, a narrow scale induced a greatervisual
distance to be covered, which meant less perceived progress.
Choice of a Parting Gift. Eighty-five percent of the
participants in the wide scale chose a chocolate bar over
an apple as a parting gift, but only 58% of the participants
in the narrow-scale condition indicated a similar choice
( , ; see fig. 1). The results are consistentx(1) p4.01 p!.05
with the notion that having to rate oneself closer to the end
point of a weight-loss scale induced an inference of lower
progress, and, as a result, participants were more likely to
select a gift that is consistent with the goal of losing weight.
On the other hand, rating oneself around the midpoint of a
weight-loss scale induced a inference of higher progress
toward one’s ideal state, and, as a result, participants were
more likely to choose a tasty but fattening chocolate bar,
which is inconsistent with the goal of losing weight. Per-
ceived goal progress apparently had a direct effect on actual
choice of actions. The more progress was perceived, the
more likely are people to choose inconsistent activities.
Respondents were also possibly influenced by the nu-
merical anchors of the two scales in arriving at their esti-
mates for ideal weight. However, an explanation based on
anchoring would suggest that participants who completed
the wide (vs. narrow) scale and thus were planning to lose
more weight should be less and not more likely to deviate
from their goal. In contrast, we find these participants are
more likely to choose the high-calorie candy. Also insupport
of our prediction, the discrepancy between actual and ideal
weight (as indicated by translating the visual data to nu-
merical values) had no effect on choice. Controlling for the
discrepancy values, a regression of choice on the progress
manipulation remained significant ( , ).t(42) p2.04 p!.05
Thus, it was perceived progress, rather than the absolute
GOALS AS EXCUSES OR GUIDES 373
difference from the ideal weight, that predicted the choice
of inconsistent action.
One limitation of this field study is that in addition to
manipulating goal progress, the two scales could have also
impacted goal commitment, such that a small visual dis-
crepancy on the wider scale reduces the commitment to the
goal of losing weight. Note that the narrow versus wide
scale was pretested for difference in perceptions of progress,
but these were not measured from the participants in the
main experiment. In order to clearly demonstrate the role
of goal progress, the next study measured perception of goal
progress to test whether the effect of initial goal pursuit on
subsequent choice of action is mediated by evaluations of
goal progress. That study also used a different method to
manipulate perceptions of progress.
Goal progress may be inferred through several different
means. For example, the setting of specific objectives is
likely to activate comparison of actions against these stan-
dards. In other instances, the standards might be based on
comparisons to other, accessible individuals who pursue
similar objectives. Through comparison to others, individ-
uals often obtain valuable feedback regarding their own pro-
gress toward different life goals (e.g., Mussweiler 2003). In
general, comparisons to a specific target can provide feed-
back on goal progress or on goal commitment, but they are
more often interpreted in terms of progress unless the target
of comparison is known and is an admirable role model
(e.g., Lockwood and Kunda 2000). Note that respondents
may further be directed to evaluate progress by comparison
to others.
Accordingly, in our next study we used downward or
upward comparison standards, which were expected to dif-
ferentially influence perceptions of progress and choice of
goal-incongruent actions. Specifically with regard to aca-
demic and social goals, we predicted that perceived high
progress in the academic domain would enhance the sub-
sequent pursuit of social activities. In order to test this hy-
pothesis, participants in the next study listed the amount of
time that they intend to study on a survey form that had
been previously filled out (presumably by another partici-
pant) and partially erased. In this “partially filled-out” sur-
vey, a fictitious participant listed either a small or a large
amount of time to be spent studying. Using this procedure,
we set an external standard of comparison in a rather in-
cidental way, which involves minimal elaboration on the
target of comparison. We hypothesized that making down-
ward (vs. upward) social comparison increases perceived
goal progress, which then induces greater interest in pur-
suing social activities.
STUDY 2: BALANCING ACADEMIC
OBJECTIVES AND SOCIAL
ACTIVITIES
Procedure
Forty undergraduates enrolled at a large midwestern uni-
versity (27 females, 13 males) participated in the experiment
for $1. Gender of participants did not yield any effects and
is therefore omitted from subsequent consideration. This
study employed a social comparison standard (high vs. low)
between-subjects design. At the beginning of the experi-
mental survey, participants were asked to specify the time
that they have spent on their course work in the past day.
They completed their answers on a survey form that was
partially filled by a fictitious participant. They were told that
since that person only completed the first item, we could
save paper by using this survey again. Depending on ex-
perimental condition, the fictitious respondent listed either
30 min. (low standard) or 5 hr. (high standard). The re-
sponses were crossed out but were clearly visible.
In order to increase the focus on goal progress, all the
participants rated their perceived goal progress. They were
asked to indicate on a seven-point scale ( likely)7pvery
the extent to which they feel that they are making progress
toward completing their academic tasks. Finally, partici-
pant’s interest in pursuing incongruent activities with the
focal academic goal was assessed. They were asked to rate
on a seven-point scale their interest in pursuing the following
nonacademic activities: (1) go out with friends, (2) watch
television, and (3) have fun. After completing their ratings,
participants were debriefed and probed for possible suspi-
cion. None of them expressed any suspicion regarding the
social standard manipulation.
Results and Discussion
In support of the manipulation of low (30 min.) versus
high (5 hr.) social comparison standard, participants in our
study reported having spent about 3 hr. on theircourse work
( , ). The low versus high comparisonMp3.00 SD p2.04
standards were therefore calibrated for the tested population.
Furthermore, comparing one’s progress to a low social stan-
dard increased perceived goal progress ( ) moreMp5.20
than comparing one’s progress to a high social standard
( , , , one-tailed).Mp4.20 t(38) p1.92 p!.05
To test our hypotheses, participants’ ratings of interest in
nonacademic activities were averaged across the three ac-
tivities ( ). As predicted, participants in the lowap0.53
social standard condition reported greater interest in non-
academic activities ( 5) than those in the high socialMp5.0
standard condition ( , , ). AMp4.31 t(38) p2.26 p!.05
similar significant pattern was obtained for each activity
separately. Next, a series of regression analyses demon-
strated that perceived academic progress mediated the effect
of social comparison on interest in nonacademic activities.
This analysis found that, in itself, social comparison (low
vs. high) directly increased interest in nonacademic activities
( , ). However, indirectly, social comparisonbp.30 p!.05
increased perceived academic progress ( , ),bp.34 p!.05
which in turn increased interest in nonacademic activities
( , ). Finally, controlling for perceived aca-bp.38 p!.05
demic progress, the effect of social comparison on interest
in nonacademic activities diminished ( , NS). Ap-bp.18
parently the direct effect of social comparison on interest
in nonacademic pursuits was mediated by the amount of
374 JOURNAL OF CONSUMER RESEARCH
perceived goal progress induced by the social comparison
information.
Participants in this study expressed a general motivation
to balance between academic tasks and nonacademic activ-
ities, and their balancing motivation increased with the
amount of perceived goal progress. Interestingly, however,
participants in the low social comparison condition, who
experienced greater sense of progress, were not actually
spending more time on their course work ( hr.)Mp3.30
than those in the high social comparison condition (Mp
hr., , NS). Furthermore, the actual amount3.05 t(38) p.56
of time spent studying did not predict interest in nonaca-
demic activities ( , NS), and the effect of the ma-rp.05
nipulation on interest in nonacademic activities remained
significant after controlling for course work time (t(38) p
, , one-tailed). As in study 1 then, it was the1.90 p!.05
perception of progress, rather than objective amount of pro-
gress, that predicted disengagement with a goal.
The studies so far show that the focus on goal progress
increases the pursuit of subsequent activities that are in-
consistent or pertain to other goals. The perceptions of pro-
gress on a focal goal were made accessible by manipulating
the standard of comparison, which elicited sense ofprogress
toward the relevant goal. However, an initial choice of action
may also be used to infer one’s commitment to anoverriding
goal, rather than goal progress. As stated previously, when
actions signify commitment they are unlikely to be followed
by inconsistent choice of actions. Our next study tests for
this by manipulating the focus of the respondent on either
commitment to a goal or on progress toward a goal. We
hypothesized that initial actions motivate subsequent incon-
sistent choice if viewed in terms of goal progress, but these
actions motivate subsequent consistent choices if viewed in
terms of commitment to a goal.
STUDY 3: THE OPPOSITE EFFECTS OF
COMMITMENT AND PROGRESS
As stated previously, the focus on goal commitment and
progress should have opposite effects on subsequent choice
of actions. In this study, we primed these mental framings
by asking respondents to infer either the level of commit-
ment or the level of progress based on an initial goal pursuit.
Procedure
Fifty undergraduates enrolled at a large midwestern uni-
versity (26 females, 24 males) participated in the experiment
for $1. Gender of participants did not yield any effects. The
study employed a goal focus (commitment vs. progress)
between-subjects design. Upon their arrival at the lab, par-
ticipants were handed a survey titled, “Self-Evaluations.”
They were told that in this survey they had to evaluate and
predict their behavior in different situations. Based on our
pilot data that undergraduates are generally concerned with
studying, saving, and health maintenance, we presented in-
formation regarding these three focal goals. Participants in
the condition that focused on goal commitment were asked
to evaluate their level of commitment after having imagined
pursuing each of these goals, whereas participants in the
goal progress condition were asked to evaluate their level
of progress after having imagined pursuing each of these
goals. The main dependent variable referred to participants’
interest in pursuing subsequent action that was incongruent
to the corresponding focal goal.
Specifically, in the academic vignette participants in the
commitment condition were asked to indicate whether they
feel committed to academic tasks whenever they study hard
all day, whereas participants in the progress condition were
asked to indicate whether they feel that they have made
progress on their academic tasks whenever they study hard
all day. After indicating their ratings, all the participants
rated the likelihood that on such days they will choose to
hang out with friends at night (an incongruent activity with
studying). In a similar way, in the saving and health-goal
vignettes, participants were asked to indicate their commit-
ment (vs. progress) based on the same initial actions and
then indicate how likely they are to pursue an incongruent
action with the focal goal. All ratings were made on seven-
point scales.
Results and Discussion
The likelihood of each target choosing a subsequent goal-
incongruent action was averaged across the three goal vi-
gnettes ( ), and in support of the hypothesis, anap0.44
initial goal-consistent action increased the likelihood of
choosing inconsistent actions in progress focus ( )Mp4.73
more than in commitment focus ( , ,Mp3.97 t(48) p2.50
). A similar significant pattern was obtained for eachpp.01
vignette separately.
Furthermore, a direct test of the relationship between rat-
ings of progress (vs. commitment) and subsequent interest
in pursuing inconsistent actions revealed that, in line with
our hypothesis, in the progress focus, perceived goal pro-
gress was positively related to participants’ choice of goal-
incongruent actions ( , ). However, in therp.65 p!.05
commitment focus, perceived goal commitment was in-
versely related to participant’s choice of goal-incongruent
actions ( , ). It appears that perceptions ofrp.37 p!.05
commitment deter people from choosing inconsistent ac-
tions whereas perceptions of progress encourage choice of
inconsistent actions. Note, however, that both progressand
commitment were inferred based on an identical set of
actions.
Although the role of goals in motivating consistent actions
is well-known, this study suggests that subsequent actions
can be systematically consistent or inconsistent toward a
focal goal. Specifically, it appears that a given course of
action may indicate that a goal is an important part of one’s
self-concept and, hence, may lead to pursuing another sim-
ilar course of action or that one has made progress toward
a particular goal state and, hence, this person is more likely
to pursue actions that help attain other goals.
The next study sets the first step in demonstrating that
progress is like a resource and applies to future as much
GOALS AS EXCUSES OR GUIDES 375
as past actions. Research on optimism shift suggests that
the evaluation of goal progress is likely to be higher for
future versus past events (Gilovich et al. 1993). The higher
perceptions of progress for future actions would suggest
a greater inclination to engage with goal-incongruent ac-
tions. Our next study was therefore set to test whether
overoptimistic evaluations elicit greater compensation for
expected progress than actual progress.
STUDY 4: BORROWING FROM FUTURE
GOAL PROGRESS
The aforementioned idea was tested with regard to the
goal of staying fit and among participants who expressed
concern with their weight. Since people’s expectations of
an upcoming workout may exceed their evaluation of the
workout on its completion, they should be more likely to
pursue actions inconsistent with staying fit (i.e., consume
fatty foods) before rather than after exercising, when they
focus on goal progress.
Procedures
Fifty-two undergraduates enrolled at a large midwestern
university (22 females, 30 males) volunteered to participate
in the experiment. Gender of participants did not yield any
effects. This study employed a time (before vs. after exer-
cising) between-subjects design. An experimenter, who was
unaware of the purpose of the study or the specific hypoth-
eses, approached each participant individually at the en-
trance to a university gym facility. Depending on experi-
mental condition, the participants in the study were either
on their way to the gym facility or on their way out of the
gym facility. They were all asked to rate the effectiveness
of their (accomplished or upcoming) workout in making
progress toward their goal of staying fit. They provided their
ratings on a 10-point scale (10 pextremely effective). After
listing their rating, participants were asked to indicate on a
five-point scale the extent to which they would like to have
a heavy (i.e., tasty but fatty) food for dinner on that night.
Results and Discussion
Optimistic Evaluations. In line with previous research,
participants were overoptimistic when evaluating the effec-
tiveness of their upcoming workout ( ) comparedMp7.58
with their recently accomplished workout ( ,Mp6.65
, , one-tailed).t(50) p1.88 p!.05
Choice of Inconsistent Action. As predicted, prior to
their workout participants expressed more interest in con-
suming a tasty but fatty dinner ( ) than after theirMp3.58
workout ( , , ). ConsistentMp2.88 t(50) p2.63 pp.01
with our underlying assumption regarding the effect of per-
ceived progress, ratings of perceived effectiveness of work-
out and consumption of fatty foods were positively corre-
lated ( , ). Thus, as in our previous studies,rp.30 p!.05
perceived greater progress predicted interest in inconsistent
choice of actions. Note that the effect of perceived progress
was further independent of time of measurement, as indi-
cated by a partial correlation, controlling for time of mea-
surement ( , ). It appears that unrealistic pos-rp.23 p!.05
itive expectations may lead people to overestimate future
goal progress. As a result, they are more likely to overcom-
pensate for future progress. That is, people are willing to
borrow from future progress more than consuming actual
progress when focusing on goal progress.
GENERAL DISCUSSION
Theories of self-regulation emphasize its inherent link to
goal. We show in a series of studies that focusing on an
action in terms of goal progress may sometimes facilitate
inconsistent choice of subsequent actions. We specifically
investigated four hypotheses that characterize the effect of
perceived goal progress. First, subjective evaluations of pro-
gress increase interest in incongruent choice of action. Sec-
ond, through social comparison individuals may acquire
feedback on their relative goal progress, which increases
their tendency to switch to alternative objectives. Third,
whereas progress focus enhances the pursuit of alternative
goals whenever the progress is satisfactory, focusing on goal
commitment enhances further goal pursuit. Fourth, over-
optimistic evaluations can lead people to overestimate their
future goal progress, and consequently they are more likely
to select inconsistent actions when considering future as
opposed to past goal progress. Goals when viewed in terms
of progress may thus take characteristics of resources such
as time and money where people substitute among conflict-
ing actions.
Four studies were conducted to demonstrate the afore-
mentioned hypotheses using different goals (e.g., exercising,
studying, saving, and losing weight) and different experi-
mental procedures (e.g., self-report surveys and field stud-
ies). Study 1 found that dieters’ perceptions of goal progress
facilitated the choice of incongruent food (chocolate bar).
Study 2 found that individuals’ perceptions of goalprogress
through social comparison facilitated goal-incongruent
choices. Study 3 showed that the choice of an action may
either indicate that progress was made toward a given goal
or that a person is committed to the focal goal. The nature
of inferences then determined whether a person subse-
quently balanced among different goals by selecting in-
consistent actions or whether a person maintained pursuit
of a focal goal by selecting similar actions. Finally, study
4 found that overoptimistic evaluations of future progress
increased choice of inconsistent means in comparison to
actual goal progress. Taken together, these studies demon-
strate some of the ironic effects of perceived goal progress
on actual goal pursuit. We find that expected progress leads
to moving away from the active goal.
Alternative Explanation
In our studies, we interpreted the pursuit of multiple goals
in terms of balancing. Since in most of our studies partic-
376 JOURNAL OF CONSUMER RESEARCH
ipants switched from a rather laborious activity to a more
relaxing or tempting one (e.g., from exercising to indulging),
it seems possible that participants were too exhausted to
pursue yet another laborious activity. Thus, switching to an
alternative goal could have resulted from mental or actual
resource depletion (e.g., Muraven and Baumeister 2000). A
few reasons, however, argue against this alternative for the
pattern of our results.
First, the depletion model requires a certain sequence be-
tween an initially laborious activity and a subsequently re-
laxing activity. Since participants in some of our studies
compensated for future goal progress by choosing to pursue
inconsistent activities beforehand (e.g., study 4), it is un-
likely that a depletion-based explanation could account for
all our findings. Second, resource depletion, unlike goal
progress, reflects an objective state rather than subjective
perceptions. Since our studies employed manipulations that
highlight perceptions of progress (e.g., studies 2 and 3), it
is less likely that participants in high-progress conditions
were objectively more depleted than those in low-progress
conditions. Finally, in research on ego depletion an initially
laborious activity was always followed by a subsequently
relaxing activity. However, we show that the effect is dif-
ferent for progress versus commitment focus (e.g., study 3).
In general terms, our framework is not restricted to sit-
uations where a focal action has greater long-term value or
where pursuing a focal goal is more taxing than its alter-
natives. It is potentially more general than what is implied
by a self-control analysis, and it predicts thatprogress focus
along any goal should promote choice of inconsistent ac-
tions. We further believe that depletion and balancing are
orthogonal rather than competitive processes. Thus, balanc-
ing considerations represent a general metacognitive strat-
egy of making successive decisions in a multiple goals sys-
tem, whereas depletion reflects a temporary condition of
low resources, which weakens self-control. Whereas bal-
ancing considerations facilitate the pursuit of goal-incon-
gruent activities, depletion impairs the pursuit of goal-con-
gruent activities.
Implication and Future Direction
Our research assumes a general underlying motivation to
balance between successive choices. This basic motivation
was often reflected in research on variety seeking (e.g.,Rat-
ner et al. 1999), but it seems to be in contradiction with
research on the value of behavioral consistency (e.g., Bem
1972), which often demonstrated the effect of an initial goal
pursuit on the emergence of congruent cognitions and be-
haviors. According to our theoretical analysis, a motivation
for consistency is elicited when one’s actions are framed as
defining features of one’s self-concept, whereas a variety-
seeking motivation emerges when these actions signal pro-
gress along previously defined goals. But note that whereas
variety seeking seems in many cases to be a reasonable
strategy, a choice of inconsistent actions may sometimes
lead to unexpected outcomes, especially whenever the pro-
gress that is attained by one action is canceled out by pur-
suing another inconsistent action (e.g., when feeling safe
makes people more reckless). Our current investigation pro-
poses an initial step in understanding such paradoxical be-
havioral inconsistencies.
This research further elicits other questions that could be
addressed by future research. For instance, many broad, ab-
stract goals are often broken into specific subgoals in the
process of implementation. Previous research has pointed
out that breaking an abstract goal into concrete actions fa-
cilitates the implementation of this abstract goal (Carver and
Scheier 1998; Gollwitzer 1999). However, as subgoals are
more concrete than abstract goals, it is further easier to
evaluate progress toward these end states. As a result, in-
dividuals may be more likely to balance between goals when
these are defined in terms of specific subgoals. Subgoals
may thus facilitate overriding goal pursuit under commit-
ment framing but inhibit further goal pursuit under progress
framing. These intriguing possibilities will remain at this
point interesting topics for future investigation.
[Dawn Iacobucci served as editor and Barbara Kahn
served as associate editor for this article.]
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