Can Focusing on Progress Undo the Progress?

Professor Ayelet Fischback and Professor Ravi Dhar discovered one paradoxical effect of focusing on progress: “goal liberation“.

Here is how it works: happy with the progress made toward a long-term goal, the brain turns off the mental processes that were driving the pursuit of the long-term goal and turns towards goals that have not yet been satisfied. Which often are in conflict with the long-term goal.

For example, a group of successful dieters were complimented on the progress made toward their ideal weight. Then they were offered either an apple or a chocolate bar as a thank-you gift. 85% of those  reminded of their progress chose the chocolate (vs. 58% in control group). Similarly, students made to feel good about the amount of time they studied were more likely to spend the evening hanging out with friends instead of studying.

The above is relevant to Solution-Focused practitioners since we invite clients to notice progress.

Is this SF practice actually undermining clients’ goals?

I think not, for a few significant reasons:

1) we go into details. We ask clients how they managed to make progress. What it is they did. We compliment them on their successful efforts against difficult odds.

2) we clearly point them towards the next step. In other words, we quickly invest the “energy” gained by exploring success and progress to figuring out how they can make further progress. We keep them on track, on the same goal.

3) we use scaling questions to put progress into perspective: what has been achieved and what still needs to be achieved.

I think this fits well with what research says is effective in undoing the “goal liberation” effect: viewing one’s actions as evidence of commitment to one’s goals.

Researchers found that while the question “how much progress do you feel you have made on your goal?” tends to activate the goal liberation effect, the question “So how committed do you feel to your goal now?” does not.

Regarding the former, the SF playbook calls for a scaling question and / or going for the behavioral evidence regarding the feeling that progress has been made. Being brought back to the behaviors, and the efforts involved, would be enough, I believe, to remind clients of how much they invested in this, and to engage our need to be consistent. In other words, we do not dwell on the feeling but we explore how we got there and how we can do more of that.

Regarding the latter, I see it as very similar to a scaling question regarding confidence, something SF practitioners use very often.

Moreover, in another study, researchers found that when they ask students to remember a time they turned down a temptation, then 70% of them take the next opportunity to indulge. But when they were also asked to remember why they had resisted, the effect disappears. I think in this scenario “why” is equivalent to the true and tested SF question: “How did you manage to resist temptation?”.

What do you think?

Credit also to Professor Kelly McGonigal whose book “The Willpower Instinct” inspired this post.