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Bradley Donohue Ph.D.
Bradley Donohue Ph.D.

Is It OK to Review Consequences of Not Achieving Goals?

New research sheds light on motivational strategies to assist goal achievement.

Imagine that you are a coach. You notice that your team tends to take their strength and conditioning workouts less seriously, when compared to their other training. You want to motivate your athletes to work hard and stay engaged during this training. Would it be better to discuss the negative consequences of not getting stronger? Or focus on the potential benefits of increasing their strength?

Fortunately, research sheds light on the answer to this question. Two motivational strategies were compared in 93 undergraduate college students interested in healthy lifestyle changes (Gavrilova et al., 2018). The students were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: a control condition, a positive consequences review condition (PCR), or a negative consequences review condition (NCR). The control group received a relaxation exercise. Participants assigned to PCR were asked to report potential positive outcomes of reaching their goal(s) (an interviewer summarized these consequences and provided encouragement). NCR participants were asked to report the negative consequences that might occur if their goal(s) were not accomplished (an interviewer summarized the consequences and provided empathy in a nonjudgmental manner). The participants provided information about their motivation, effort to achieve their goals, positive affect/mood, satisfaction, and desire to see a professional to assist goal accomplishment at three different times (i.e., before intervention, immediately after intervention, and 7 days after intervention).

Results demonstrated that participants in the PCR and NCR conditions evidenced improvements in motivation, effort, mood, satisfaction, and to a lesser extent desire to seek professional help, when compared to the control group. No significant differences were found between PCR and NCR. Results suggest reviewing positive consequences for goal accomplishment may be just as effective as reviewing expected negative consequences if goals were not achieved.

It is important to consider that (1) the results of this study may not generalize to sport specific contexts and (2) the way coaches review consequences may bring about different responses in athletes. In this study the interviewers permitted participants to generate their own consequences, and responded with empathy and concern when negative consequences were reported and enthusiasm for positive consequences.

So, what does this mean for the world of sport psychology?

  1. First, when considering how to motivate athletes, reviewing positive consequences for goal accomplishment may be just as effective as reviewing negative consequences that are expected to occur if goals are not achieved.
  2. Secondly, reviewing consequences of goals with genuine concern and support appears to lead to improvements in motivation.
  3. Clinicians or other individuals seeking to motivate athletes should probably not shy away from soliciting negative consequences that may result if goals are not achieved. However, it's important to engage in this conversation in an open-minded, nonjudgmental, and empathic manner. Instead of criticizing an athlete for not working hard during their strength training, encourage the athlete to self-identify potential consequences and approach this conversation with a genuine curiosity and concern.
  4. Lastly, given that the results of this study demonstrated no differences in study outcomes between the review formats, why not solicit positive consequences for goal achievement!


Gavrilova, Y., Donohue, B., Galante, M., & Gavrilova, E. (in press). A controlled examination of motivational strategies: Is it better to motivate by reviewing positive consequences for goal accomplishment or negative consequences of not accomplishing goals? Motivation Science.

About the Author
Bradley Donohue Ph.D.

Bradley Donohue, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

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