People often set low goals that are easier to reach with the belief that doing so will guarantee happiness. But does this approach actually protect the goal-setter and lead to greater satisfaction?
The answer may lie partly in how people measure their performance — whether against their initial goal or the pinnacle of what is possible in a given situation. For example, is a student who aims for a B on a test satisfied when they earn that grade, or are they disappointed because they could have earned an A?
To find out whether those who set low goals are as satisfied as those who set higher goals, Professor Gita Johar and former doctoral candidate Cecile Cho, now assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside, looked at goal setting in the context of financial decision making and puzzle solving. They predicted that individuals who felt a need to avoid future disappointment would set low goals to avoid the disappointment that could come from not meeting higher goals. Johar and Cho asked study participants to set “desired percent return on investment” goals that they thought would satisfy them, first subtly priming some of the participants to set low performance goals while leaving others to set goals without any such influence. Participants then took part in a simulation scenario where they had to invest the money based on stock information provided by the researchers.
Afterward, Johar and Cho provided feedback, telling all participants their investments met their performance goals. Participants were then asked how satisfied they were with their performance. Ironically, those who set low goals up front to avoid future disappointment were less satisfied than those who set high goals. The researchers ensured that the results could not be explained by differences in the actual level of performance. Even though people expect to compare their performance to their initially set goals, they end up comparing it to what could have been and are therefore doomed to disappointment when they set low goals.