Hopes are high this time of year, but before your make your New Year’s resolution you might want to consider an important cognitive bias: when following goals, progress is given a lot more consideration than setbacks. Say your resolution is to lose weight, so next year you’ll be on a diet. Chances have it, according to a study made by University of Colorado Boulder, you’ll feel refraining from eating ice cream (goal-consistent behavior) will help you in your resolution more than eating the ice cream will obstruct it. In doing so, you overestimate movement toward versus away from your target. In a more general context, there’s this bias that makes most people believe good behaviors are more beneficial in reaching goals than bad behaviors are in obstructing goals. It’s an innocent bias, but one that might make you lose focus or fail without even knowing what happened.

It’s all about thinking in net gain

diet goal

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“Basically what our research shows is that people tend to accentuate the positive and downplay the negative when considering how they’re doing in terms of goal pursuit,” said Margaret C. Campbell, lead author of the paper — published online in the Journal of Consumer Research — and professor of marketing at CU-Boulder’s Leeds School of Business.


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There’s an upside to it, though. When you accentuate the progress you’ve made and minimize the setbacks, you’ll feel more motivate which will help in reaching your goal, be it eating healthier, saving money or learning a new foreign language. A lapse away from the goal, known as  goal-inconsistent behavior, thus becomes less damaging in perception, so people feel these lapses can be redeemed later on. Success in working toward a goal, known as goal-consistent behavior, then feel like big accomplishments.

The big downside is that there’s a considerable risk people engage in too many goal-inconsistent behaviors and too few goal-consistent behavior, all while the goal pursuer feels he’s making progress when in fact he’s making none.

 “So our moral for the season is monitor, monitor, monitor,” said Campbell. “For example, dieters need to pay close attention to calories in and out — both aspects — during this tempting time to keep from falling prey to the bias.”

The researchers found that even when the goal-consistent and goal-inconsistent behaviors are the same size, like saving $90 or spending $90, the bias tends to be present.

What’s interesting is that a lack of confidence in reaching a goal can lessen the bias, the researchers found. You could say that being realistic makes you more attentive to both progress and setbacks. Of course, this can be dangerous to reaching your goal when the behavior turns to pessimism, since this tends to hinder motivation.