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  • Final Report Summary - THEOSTRICHPROBLEM (‘The ostrich problem’: When and why people fail to monitor their goal progress and the development of a new focus for behaviour change interventions)


Project ID: 280515
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: United Kingdom

Final Report Summary - THEOSTRICHPROBLEM (‘The ostrich problem’: When and why people fail to monitor their goal progress and the development of a new focus for behaviour change interventions)

Monitoring one’s current standing with respect to goals can promote effective self-regulation. However, the present project proposed that there is an ‘ostrich problem’ such that, in many instances, people have a tendency to “bury their head in the sand” and intentionally avoid or reject information that would help them to monitor their goal progress. The project was inspired by evidence suggesting that people with diabetes avoid monitoring their blood glucose, and few people monitor their household energy consumption, check their bank balances, keep track of what they are eating and so on. We began by reviewing evidence pertaining to the ostrich problem and developing a conceptual model that identified the different motives that likely underlie the decision to monitor versus not monitor goal progress. This work was published in Social and Personality Psychology Compass.

Our empirical research started by investigating whether people monitor their current standing in relation to their goals and, if they do, what they monitor, when and how. A systematic review of studies that prompt people to monitor their goal progress (published in Psychological Bulletin) as well as our own empirical work (e.g., published in Frontiers in Personality and Social Psychology) identified the different ways that people assess whether they are making progress toward their goals (e.g., by keeping track of behaviour or the outcomes of behaviour). We also investigated the factors that influence whether people monitor their household energy consumption (published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology) and personal finances (accepted for publication in the Journal of Economic Psychology). Finally, we used brain imaging techniques to identify the neural processes involved in monitoring goal progress (these findings were published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience).

The second objective of the project was to identify why people do not monitor their progress (our suspicion was that these reasons might be quite different to those that prompt people to monitor). In two studies reported in an invited inaugural article for Frontiers in Personality and Social Psychology we found that people report avoiding monitoring their goal progress when they believe that (i) information on goal progress would demand a change in beliefs or undesired action, (ii) their progress was poor, and (iii) when thinking about and / or working on the goal is associated with negative emotions. However, people actually seem to avoid monitoring their progress when they believe that (i) information about goal progress is likely to be inaccurate and not useful, and (ii) they have control over goal attainment.

Our final objective was to identify ways to promote monitoring among people who currently do not. In this regard, we conducted a review (published in Health Psychology Review) which found that self-weighing (one way of monitoring progress toward weight related goals) had a negative impact on psychological outcomes (e.g., levels of depression, well-being), particularly among young adults, suggesting that anticipating such negative outcomes might make people unwilling to accurately appraise their progress. Armed with this information, we conducted a series of studies to investigate whether self-affirmation (thinking about positive characteristics) could help to reduce the negative psychological impact of self-weighing. Our findings (to be submitted to Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin) suggest that it could, but that only affirming strengths (e.g., knowledgeable, trustworthy) was effective.

In summary, the project has advanced our understanding of the nature and determinants of intentionally deficient monitoring. The insights have been disseminated both through academic publication (8 peer reviewed papers to date; with a further 5 under review) and presentations at national and international conferences (15 presentations to date). In addition to starting to influence science and academia, the ideas have attracted two independently funded PhD students and additional funding from commercial organisations interested in understanding (i) why consumers do not always act in their best interests in financial markets and (ii) why people struggle to manage the weight of their cats and dogs.

Reported by

United Kingdom
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