The Role of Obstacle Integration in Goal Planning and Attainment

Idil working on her computer.



Professor of Psychology, Director of Graduate Studies

Project Summary

Goal-attainment and self-control have often been stated as essential ingredients in leading a satisfied life. Given that it is usually our own mental conflicts that set us back in our daily goal-pursuit, it is important to investigate the meta-cognitive strategies that can help us in this process.

With our study, we were interested in investigating the relationship between goals, obstacles, desired outcome and goal planning by testing different cognitive strategies. While previous literature implied that considering obstacles that may hinder our goal-attainment is effective in improving goal-attainment, the effectiveness of the various degrees of obstacle integration remained largely unexplored. Our study aimed to address this gap by systematically comparing the effectiveness of different levels of obstacle-integration in daily goal planning. Thus, our main research question in this study was the following: How explicitly must people be prompted to integrate obstacles into their goal-setting plans in order for goal-attainment strategies to be effective?

To test this question, we designed a seven-day mobile-phone intervention that asked participants, which comprised of Penn undergraduates, to report on their goals and their progress each day. We aimed to gather goal-related data in a naturalistic context, by sending the daily goal surveys via text messages at random times within preset time intervals through a mobile-test survey software called SurveySignal. We randomly assigned participants to each of the 4 experimental groups that varied in their level of obstacle integration. The main obstacle integration strategy that inspired us was the widely studied Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions (MCII) strategy.

Overall, designing a study that spanned 10 days in total (with the initial and final surveys) was an invaluable experience for me. I have always been interested in interventions geared towards improving people’s quality of life, so it was definitely an intellectually invigorating experience. Besides giving me the opportunity to explore my academic interests, this research project allowed me to grow as a thinker and problem-solver. From finding relevant literature that informed our design to setting up the SurveySignal software, every step was another puzzle to be solved. Carrying out my own experiment from start to finish gave me confidence in creating a complex project with moving parts, overseeing it for an extended period of time and eventually presenting it to a wider audience. I know that these will be indispensable skills for me in the future.