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Giving up on your goal? Read this first

So you’ve set a goal to eat healthier and you’ve mapped out a plan of attack. You’ll replace those chips with fruit for your late-night snack. You’ll switch to whole-grain bread. You’ll start buying fresh vegetables.

But then you walk into the grocery store, and the fresh vegetables you wanted to buy for your weekly meal plan are unavailable for the third week in a row. Cue the action crisis.

“Setbacks present real challenges in pursuing our goals,” said Richard Vann, assistant professor of marketing at Penn State Behrend. “When goals are blocked by obstacles, we often feel bad about ourselves and sometimes stop pursuing these goals.”

A series of setbacks like this can be defined as an “action crisis,” a time in goal pursuit when circumstances cause an individual to question whether or not a goal is still important.

For instance, if the goal is to lose weight, the action crisis may come when the dieter hits a plateau.

All too often, an action crisis may lead a person to reassess the cost-benefits of a goal and consider giving it up. New research from Vann provides a better understanding of how people respond to action crises.

Vann is the lead author of “When consumers struggle: Action crisis and its effects on problematic goal pursuit,” published early online in the journal Psychology & Marketing. Together with José Rosa, a John and Deborah Ganoe Faculty Fellow at Iowa State University, and Sean McCrea, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Wyoming, Vann conducted experiments to gain a clearer picture of the effects of action crises.

“We really wanted to understand what repeated setbacks and struggles look like,” Vann said. “The whole project was structured around the idea that this is a common shared experience, so we ran the experiments in different contexts.”

One component of the research looked at how people respond to action crises in three different goal situations: a goal to have a stronger patient-provider relationship, a goal to lose weight and a goal to be a more environmentally-conscious shopper.

The experiments, which were administered online through a series of questions, simulated situations in which action crises arose. In each instance, the data showed that the crisis led the person to concentrate on disengagement-focused thoughts rather than reaffirming the goal.

“We found the same pattern across all these areas,” Vann said. “These action crisis thoughts lead people to start devaluing their goal and ratchets up the difficulty of sticking to the goal. It leads people to draw back from their commitment.”

However, if a person (or their support network of family, friends, and professionals) were to know ahead of time that an action crisis may be imminent, he or she might be more likely to stick to the goal. That’s where Vann sees this research being most beneficial.

“If we’re going to be able to help people as they enter that period of repeated struggles or setbacks, we need to know what it looks like when they face an action crisis. That’s why I think this research can be so helpful,” Vann said. “We’re looking at this from a consumer standpoint, but there’s potential relevance in a number of other areas, including health behaviors, careers and personal relationships.”

The research is also very personal for Vann. Growing up, he witnessed his family members struggling with health goals while battling chronic illnesses.

“There was no easy way for them,” Vann said. “They already felt bad, and as they tried to get better, they would hit setbacks. These struggles take a toll; it affects everyone. As we learn more about what setbacks look like and how we respond to them, hopefully we can work to overcome the setbacks to either reach our goals or learn how to use these setbacks to select goals better suited to our situation.”

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