It is now the second week of February and there are probably many individuals out there struggling with the same type of problem, those pesky New Year’s resolutions! For some of us our goals may just be starting to come apart or in some instances have been completely derailed by this point. We've had plenty of time to make up a plan and get settled into a routine, but for some reason we just can’t quite seem to stick to the goal. New research may help in our understanding of why our resolutions and or goals fall off track and it appears to be an easy trick to do at the start of decision making...
A study by Rom Y. Schrift and Jeffery R. Parker (2014) investigated a technique that was found to be useful in goal setting and has demonstrated success in strengthening individual commitment to goals and persistence of achieving goals. That’s right a remedy to help accomplish those derailed New Year’s resolutions. The article, entitled “Staying the Course: The Option of Doing Nothing and its Impact on Postchoice Persistence” evaluates the influence that giving ourselves a “no choice/do nothing” option may have on achieving that goal. The "no choice/do nothing" option is given alongside other choices of action as well.
When initially deciding on a goal and coming up with the plan to achieve that goal, it is suggested that a “do nothing” option be included in your set of choices. For example, Wendy could make a goal of losing 30 lbs in the New Year. She may give herself a "no choice/do nothing" option (also referred to as a rejectable choice set) consisting of running on the treadmill, aerobics and doing absolutely nothing that will help her achieve her weight loss. If Wendy chooses one of the action options (aerobics or treadmill) over the option of doing nothing, she will experience increased persistence when working towards her weight loss goal compared to having just chosen doing aerobics over running on the treadmill. This comparison that Wendy makes between doing nothing and doing something and subsequently deciding on actively working towards her goal allows her to recognize that doing something is the preferred and good enough option for her.
Researchers of the study examined this concept through a series of smaller studies that each investigated participant persistence in varying situations involving the "no choice/do nothing" option. Study 1 was designed to investigate the possible situation that the addition of any random unappealing alternative would increase participant persistence, not specifically the no choice option. Persistence was measured in the studies but the length of time (in seconds) spent on the tasks. Participants from the rejectable choice condition (where alternatives were offered as well as the "no choice/do nothing" option )were found to spend more time working on the word search puzzle, therefore persist longer, than were participants in the other two conditions of forced choice.
Study 2 was designed to examine if the increased persistence effect of the "no choice/ do nothing" option was simply caused by the fact that individuals had an opportunity to opt out of working towards the goal. It was hypothesized that for the technique to increase persistence, participants would need to have the opportunity to compare the action option directly to the no choice option. In other words it was expected that persistence was not simply increased by an opting in and an opting out opportunity. The opportunity to compare choices allows participants to infer that the choice they ultimately make is the good enough and more preferred choice for them. The participants in the rejectable choice persisted longer and performed better in this task as well.
Study 3 was designed to examine the generalization of persistence that is gained from comparing the choices in the rejectable choice set. It was hypothesized that participants would only experience persistence in activities included in the initial choice set and not others that were excluded for it. A dummy first task was employed to test this. It was predicted that participants in the rejectable choice condition would perform better and persist longer than would participants in the forced and control conditions but only in the chosen task not the dummy task. Results of the study supported the researcher's predictions. Persistence and accuracy was increased for participants in the rejectable choice condition but only on the specific task they had chosen not the initial first dummy task.
This investigation discovered that when participants chose the alternative “action” choice over that of the "no choice/do nothing" option they performed better and persisted longer in the tasks. This can be useful for individuals working to “stay the course” of a new diet plan, medication regimen, weight loss as well as academic and professional goals. The theory behind this decision model is that the "no choice/do nothing" option is not just an additional alternative in a set of choices we give ourselves but rather it is that when an alternative option is compared to doing nothing and subsequently chosen then that choice reinforces the individual’s attitude towards their goal and their plan to achieve it. An individual’s persistence to work through the roadblocks they may encounter as part of the goal process is increased. An individual will view the choice of action as the preferred choice and as good enough to be chosen over doing nothing to help them.
Giving ourselves a "no choice/do nothing" option provides us opportunity to compare alternatives to a do nothing scenario to achieve a goal. When the choice is made to do the “action” oriented alternative over the "do nothing" option then we can recognize that the preferred choice is to work towards the goal and our commitment to the goal is strengthened. We will work longer at the task then if we had just chosen between two action options. The opportunity to choose to "do nothing" and to reject it strengthens our attitude, commitment and persistence of goal striving.
Schrift, Y. R. & Parker, R. J. (2014). Staying the course: The option of doing nothing and its impact on postchoice persistence. Psychological Science.