Why Modest Goals Appeal to Us

Our brain often thinks it’s easier to achieve a modest goal than to maintain the status quo.

Let’s say you’re wondering whether to set more money aside this coming year. You could go for a modest goal, such as increasing your savings by 1%, or pick a more ambitious one. You could also tell yourself: “I won’t increase my savings, but I’ll make sure to maintain whatever savings I already have.” New research by global school INSEAD, IE Business School, and Pamplin College of Business shows that you’re more likely to think that modestly increasing your savings is the most achievable of the three goals.

But isn’t it easier to maintain your savings than to increase them? Logically, yes, but here’s what you need to know. When we evaluate goals, we first consider the gap between the current and desired states. If that gap seems small enough, most of us feel quite encouraged. We think: “How difficult could it be? It’s an easy win! I can definitely do this!”

However, if there is no gap, the brain has nothing to chew on. A goal to maintain the status quo creates a void, which gets promptly filled by an all-too-human negative bias. Many hypothetical reasons we could fail to achieve our goal soon pop to mind. You might tell yourself: “I’m planning to travel to Europe next year, and it will be expensive. It may be really hard for me not to touch my savings.”

Knowing this quirk in the way our brains evaluate goal difficulty may come in handy with New Year’s resolution season soon upon us. It also has practical implications for your professional life. Here are some take-aways.

1) Don’t settle for the status quo.

No matter the area of your life, you’re likely to feel more inspired if you set a modest goal for yourself. You’ll naturally think of achieving this goal as both easy and rewarding. Setting your sight on the status quo will lead you to focus on everything that could go wrong. This is what new research led by business school INSEAD, IE Business School, and Pamplin College of Business showed. Results held for a variety of goals, such as academic grade point average (GPA), personal savings, and sales.

Large goals may also be inspiring, but you’ll definitely perceive them as harder to achieve than maintaining the status quo.

2) Not increasing your team’s goals may backfire.

If you’re a people manager, you may be tempted at times to ask your team members to maintain their quotas. For instance, if the market is in a downturn, you may want to be fair to them and not ask them for additional sales. However, if you do so, your staff are likely to turn their attention to just how bad external conditions are and feel demotivated. Asking them to improve ever so slightly their performance will get them to focus on how the sweet rewards of success are just within their reach.

3) Give your customers some goal to achieve.

The same principle applies to your customers. When you create a marketing promotion, ask your customers to reach a modest goal in order to reap a reward. It may get them to participate in promotions which they would have otherwise ignored. For example, a bank customer may be enticed to modestly increase her bank balance in order to get a promotional rate. Asking her to just maintain her minimum balance may not have the same ring to it. A win-win for everyone.

Based on a paper co-authored by Amitava Chattopadhyay, Professor of Marketing and the GlaxoSmithKline Chaired Professor of Corporate Innovation at INSEAD, Antonios Stamatogiannakis, Assistant Professor of Marketing at IE Business School, and Dipankar Chakravarti, Professor of Marketing at Pamplin College of Business.

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