Have you ever been oh-so-close to reaching a goal but then fallen short or even thrown in the towel, only to become frustrated and discouraged? Perhaps the reason wasn’t a lack of willpower. Maybe you simply faced too many options for making that final push to the end.
When people are close to achieving something, whether it’s as challenging as losing weight or as simple as earning enough points to get a free cup of coffee, having more than one possible path leading to success can actually derail it, says Szu-chi Huang, assistant professor of marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Yet when those same people are just starting out on a pursuit, having a number of ways to make progress is motivating and encourages them to keep going, Huang says. Her study, “All Roads Lead to Rome: The Impact of Multiple Attainment Means on Motivation,” was published in 2013 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Huang, who joined Stanford GSB in 2013 after receiving her PhD from the University of Texas at Austin, researches consumer motivation, producing findings relevant to businesses and other organizations that persuade people to buy, donate or otherwise participate. Much of her research examines how individuals attain goals. The big takeaway: What motivates people to achieve a goal is dynamic, changing over the course of the journey, and organizations should adjust the options they offer individuals to help them maintain their drive.
Early in any initiative, people wonder, “Can I achieve this goal at all?” and they seek reassurance that they can, says Huang, who co-authored the study with Ying Zhang of Peking University and University of Texas at Austin, and teaches a class at Stanford GSB in consumer behavior. Offering people several paths to follow when they are taking their first steps makes the goal seem easier, encouraging them to go for it. But when people are close to the end of the pursuit, they ask, “How do I speed to the end?” Offering choices undermines people’s motivation at this stage because it makes answering that question harder, she says.
“By providing multiple ways to attain the goal, we’re actually forcing people to stop and think and make a choice instead of giving them a straightforward path to rush to the end,” says Huang. “If you tell them, ‘Here are five things and you can do them all and you have to choose,’ we’re interrupting their momentum with choices. They now have to think and make a choice. Therefore, options are demotivating when people have reached the advanced stage of the pursuit.”