Is a nudge enough? An exploration of when people incorporate obstacles into their goal-setting strategies.

Andreas working on his computer.




Professor of Psychology, Director of Graduate Studies

Project Summary

The ‘golden standard’ of goal-setting strategies is a technique called Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions (MCII), which gets users to envision a specific, relatively immediate desired future and an obstacle that stands in the way of that goal. After, users generate an action plan for when they encounter that obstacle so that there is a response that can be deployed automatically when the situation arises.

MCII’s success is predicated on users integrating their identified obstacles into their goal plans. Our research project looked to expand upon a previous study which attempted to ‘nudge’ participants to incorporate obstacles into their plans, but did not explicitly tell them to do so; in our experiment, we created four conditions with varying levels of explicitness in their instructions to see how effective these variations of MCII would be. We used the SONA participant pool to recruit Penn undergraduates to participate in a week-long intervention in which they listed two goals each day and answered a series of questions reflecting the goal-setting strategy they had been assigned. At the end of each day, they filled out a nightly survey asking them to report on their goal progress and feelings throughout the day.       

One of the main lessons I learned from completing this research project is the difficulty in monitoring successful use of behavior change strategies electronically. Last year, I helped administer an MBSR intervention in-person, which made it easier to see when participants understood what they were doing. This time around, some participants failed to use the strategies in they way they were intended, and there wasn’t an opportunity for me to explain the strategies in greater detail so that they could be used properly. This likely contributed to why we did not find statistically significant differences between groups despite these differences being reported in previous literature. In the future, I’d love to complete a research project looking at how we can develop successful electronic/online versions of successful in-person treatments.

Working on this experiment was the most long-standing and autonomous commitment I’ve had on a project to-date. It helped to tie together all the skills I’d learned about and acquired throughout my time as a psychology student: I completed a thorough literature review to understand the goal-setting field and uncover novel questions that could be asked, designed an experiment, collected and analyzed data, and wrote up my results in an APA-style manuscript. Integrating all these skills in one project helped me understand the work of a social scientist much more deeply than I did beforehand.