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Remembering Your Sacrifices Helps You Achieve Your Goals

Why it helps for dieters to be reminded that they refused that slice of cake.

Key points

  • We are twice as likely to achieve goals if we are regularly reminded of the sacrifices we’ve made.
  • We tend to disengage from our goals if they don’t require any sacrifice.
  • Past studies have focused on the choices we make as consumers; fewer are about what we have chosen not to do.
Cat Box/Shutterstock
Source: Cat Box/Shutterstock

New research shows we are twice as likely to achieve goals, such as losing weight or getting fit, if we are regularly reminded of the diverse sacrifices we’ve made or been prepared to make in the past.

Researchers from the London School of Economics and Political Science (including myself) and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business looked closely at what drives our motivation, especially the role of foregone temptations.

We discovered that we are much more motivated if we are reminded of the many things we have chosen not to do on our way to reaching our goals—such as declining a slice of cake, a bar of chocolate, or a bag of crisps—not just those choices we’ve made that are aligned with our goals (for example, opting for a salad).

In the study, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, we recruited 210 individuals leaving the gym after their workout. They were asked to assess their exercise choice and evaluate how much achievement and progress they think they have made toward their fitness goals.

Importantly, before this evaluation, one group was prompted to consider a variety of enjoyable alternative activities they could have done instead of exercising, while another group reflected on alternative activities that are rather similar to each other. A third group did not think about any alternative activities. Following this, all participants were asked to choose between a healthier, goal-congruent energy bar and a less healthy option as a token of appreciation for participating in the study.

Interestingly, those who were reminded of diverse alternative activities they could have engaged in were twice as likely to select the healthier energy bar compared to those who considered similar alternatives or did not think about alternatives at all.

It stands to reason. Goal persistence hinges on the feeling of sacrifice, which arises from considering what was previously foregone to make a goal-consistent decision.

Some studies have previously suggested that the costliness of the initial goal-consistent action is a critical moderator determining behavioral consistency (Gneezy et al., 2012). That is, it was thought that we are more likely to continue to engage in goal-consistent behavior when the initial action involves genuine personal effort or sacrifice. We tend to disengage from our goal when the initial action is costless—or doesn’t require any sacrifice.

A series of other studies in our research demonstrated that when people consider a range of goal-inconsistent alternatives they could have chosen instead of their goal-consistent choice, they tend to believe that they had sacrificed more to be consistent with their goal, making a greater impact to their progress toward the goal. These perceptions of greater sacrifice and impact, in turn, make people more likely to stick to their goals.

Praising Ourselves for What We Don't Do

Before we undertook this research, we realized that many past studies have focused on the choices we make as consumers; relatively less research has been about what we have chosen not to eat or do.

Previous research has largely explored how the presence or absence of goal-inconsistent alternatives in a current choice affects an individual's choice-making and post-choice evaluation (Dhar & Wertenbroch, 2012; Friedman et al., 2018; Wilcox et al., 2009).

This is reflected in the many apps that support us to achieve our goals. They send us notifications about how on track we are. For example, have we completed "a streak" of language learning or of exercising this week?

But what they don’t tell us is what we have chosen not to do. We may have chosen to have eaten fruit and to have turned down a biscuit, crisps, or chocolate. We often need this to keep up our motivation and reach our goals.

Our research suggests that our memories of our past choices are really important in keeping us motivated. If we were to be given a list of things we had chosen not to do, and congratulated for them, this could help boost our motivation and enable us to reach our goals even faster.

Implications for Consumers and Marketers

This research has implications for both consumers and marketers, particularly in industries closely tied to goal achievement, where commercial success depends on consumers' sustained motivation to make goal-consistent choices, ranging from physical health and financial well-being to personal growth and learning.

Healthy eating apps, for example, require users to log the foods they’ve eaten and congratulate them for making positive choices. They could also remind us that we are succeeding by regularly saying no to a wide range of other, particularly unhealthy, foods.

The same is the case for fitness or language learning apps. These would be much more effective if, as well as cheering us on for logging the time we spend exercising or learning, they praised us for not spending that time watching TV on the sofa or scrolling on our phones.

Perhaps, in the future, a notification could pop onto our phones with: “You overcame so many different temptations to get this far.” This, our research shows, could be very helpful indeed in ensuring more of us reach our goals.

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