It's All Relative

How comparisons create self-knowledge, action, and emotions.

Gaming the System: How to Use Comparisons to Set Goals

Framing your goals as standards or as change determines their effectiveness.

It's two weeks past New Years and where did those resolutions go?  Lost in the couch cushions with the popcorn kernals from last night's movie night?  Why is it that caramel corn sticks so well and resolutions do not?  Here, I'll talk about how we can use comparisons and different kinds of comparisons to create goals that will not only stick but be obtained.

Standards: Look to others to figure out where to go, what to be

Everyone is probably familiar with numerical standards.  Numbers such as the GPA required to graduate with honors, the Body Mass Index (BMI) that categorizes one as overweight, and the age that makes one an adult are all examples of standards that we use to judge ourselves.  Using these standards can be very helpful for setting goals. Sometimes, we don't refer to government or doctor-issued orders to determine what our goal should be, instead we look to models (super models, role models) to help us out.  This can sometimes get us in trouble.  For example, people often compare themselves to models in magazines, even without meaning to. And, because those models have been unrealistically digitally altered (and even though we know it) exposure to them can create unrealistic standards.  So, while it is important to look at external sources, and well-established and shared standards for setting appropriate goals, we have to be careful that those goals are realistic.

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Change: Look to past selves to figure how far you've gone

Another way that we set goals is by looking at who we are now and deciding that we want to change.  We can decide that we want lose 5 pounds or be more healthful or work harder (or work less).  Rather than focusing on a particular destination we want to get to, we focus on a place we want to leave.  These types of goals can be tricky - considerable literature shows that we can game these comparisons to make ourselves feel better, even when little change has occurred.  Anne Wilson refers to this as the "chump to champ" effect.  When people look back to past selves, they may rate their past selves more negatively than they actually were.  This pushing down of the self in the past makes it seem like there has been greater improvement and gain over time.  For example, students who were motivated to feel that their social skills are improving are likely to rate themselve as even less popular in high school than they were.  This same strategy can allow us to fudge on our goals.  We said we wanted to eat more vegetables, do we recall eat a lot or very few vegetable last week?  We said we wanted to get into shape, how tight were our jeans last month? 

Although there are downsides to setting goals through both methods, using the methods together can be powerful.  First, standards can be used to create goals that are achievable (what can people like you achieve?) and make sure that you know how high to aim (what salary can you attain?).  Second, measuring change can help you recognize that you are making gains and moving towards your goals.  While you always want to keep one eye on how far you are from your goals, it can be rewarding to see how far you have come.  And, if you stick to hard numbers (how many more steps you take each day, how many hours you spend relaxing), you can force yourself to be 'honest" about your changes and advances.  Looking forward and looking backward are both useful in making those resolutions reality.

Camille Johnson, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and Associate Professor of Organization and Management at San Jose State University.

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