February 21, 2011

Interview with Heidi Grant Halvorson

By Coert Visser (2011)

Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD, is an experimental social psychologist and the author of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals. She received her B.A. in psychology, summa cum laude, from the University of Pennsylvania, and earned her doctorate at Columbia University, specializing in goal pursuit and motivation. Her research has focused on understanding how people respond to setbacks and challenges, and how these responses are shaped by the kinds of goals they pursue. She has published papers on topics ranging from achievement and self-regulation, to person perception, persuasion, and well-being. She also co-edited (with Gordon Moskowitz) the academic handbook The Psychology of Goals. In this interview, she talks about some of the most fascinating insights on how we can set goals wisely and how we can achieve those goals.

In the book you say something which may surprise many people: ”When you study achievement, one of the first things you learn is that innate ability has surprisingly little to do with success”. Could you explain that? 

Many people (and Americans in particular) tend to attribute their successes to and failures to some fixed ability - they believe that some people are just born smart or talented, while others are not, and this determines who is successful in life.

There are really two problems with this kind of thinking. First, there is very little evidence to support the idea that people are "born" with high ability. Yes, smart parents often have smart children - but smart parents give their children so much more than their chromosomes. They talk to their children more, give them more and better opportunities to learn, and they reinforce the value of education and achievement. In short, they give their children the chance to get smarter. We know from many studies that when poorer, less fortunate children are given the opportunity to learn in similarly enriched environments that their IQ scores rise dramatically. Abilities of all kinds turn out to be profoundly malleable - they develop with experience and effort.

Second, ability (no matter where you think it comes from) is just one small piece of the puzzle. Research shows that effort, persistence, commitment, and the strategies you use to reach your goal are far more powerful predictors of who succeeds and who fails. Self-discipline, and not giving up when obstacles arise, actually significantly outpredict IQ on every measure of achievement I've ever seen, including test scores and college grades.

Talking about ‘succeeding’, in the book you say that there are certain types of success which are not going to help you achieve lasting wellbeing and other which are. Which types of success are worthwhile and which not? And why is that so?

Everyone is happy, at least momentarily, when they achieve a long sought-after goal. But decades of research suggest that in order to experience true, authentic happiness and wellbeing, we need to pursue goals that fulfill our three basic human needs: relatedness, competence, and autonomy.

Relatedness is about feeling connected to and supported by others. Any time we seek out new relationships, seek to maintain or strengthen the ones we already have, or reach out to help others in need, we are pursuing goals that fulfill our desire for relatedness.

Competence is about feeling effective - that you have the ability to take action and make good things happen for yourself and for the people you care about. Any time we seek to learn something new, develop a new or existing skill, or challenge ourselves to do better, we are pursuing goals that will increase our sense of competence.

Autonomy is about doing things and making choices that reflect your own preferences and values. Whenever we pursue a goal because we find it interesting or enjoyable, whenever we decide on a course of action because it just "feels right," we are satisfying our basic need for autonomy. (By the way, you don't need to work alone, or to pursue purely selfish goals, to experience autonomy. Working with, or for the sake of, others can be just as genuine an expression of who you are.)

Here are some of the goals that won't satisfy your basic needs as a person: seeking fame, accumulating wealth for its own same, wanting to hold power over others. These goals, though quite common, are all about seeking validation and self-worth in the eyes of others, rather than creating a strong sense of self from within. And any happiness you get from them will be fleeting, because they will leave your true needs unfulfilled.

One of the other important lessons you offer in the book (one I find inspiring) is that young people should focus more on getting better and less on being good. How would you explain to teachers and parents reading this what that is about and why it is important?

The goals our kids pursue in the classroom (or on the playing field, or anywhere else for that matter) tell us a lot about how they will cope with difficulty. The biggest differences arise between kids whose goals are about being good versus getting better. Where being good is about proving how smart you already are, getting better is about developing skills and abilities – about getting even smarter.

Studies show that kids who see their goals in terms of getting better - who see a less-than-perfect grade on a math quiz as a signal to try harder, rather than as evidence of “not being good at math” – benefit from this outlook in many ways. They find classroom material more fun and interesting, and process it more deeply. They are less prone to anxiety and depression than their be-good peers. They are more motivated, persist longer when the going gets tough, and are much more likely to improve over time.

You can shift your child’s focus to getting better by talking about whatever they’ll be working on as an “opportunity to learn a new skill” (feel free to throw in adjectives like fun, cool, or useful) and saying that it’s something you are sure they’ll “improve on over time.” Most of us are quick to snap into be good goals whenever we feel we are being judged or compared to others, so be aware that well-meaning encouragements like “I’m sure you’ll be the best in your class” can send the wrong message.

As much as you can, avoid comparing your child’s performance to other children (which creates be good goals), and instead evaluate him relative to the task requirements (e.g., how many of the test questions he answered correctly) or to his own progress (e.g., how well he did compared to his last test). Knowing that you are being evaluated in a certain way provides a sense of what the task is “about” – either competing with others, or making progress.

Feedback should always emphasize actions that he has the power to change. Talk about the aspects of his performance that are under his control, like the time and effort he put into a practicing, or the study method he used. Help him identify what needs improvement, and what he can do to improve. This will also help him to stay positive and confident, even when he’s struggling to get the hang of it.

That is some practical advice for parents. Perhaps it is also interesting to have a look at situations in which people want to accomplish some personal goal. I understand that something called ‘if-then planning’ is particularly powerful, isn’t it?

I am a big fan of planning. If-then planning, in particular, is a really effective way to help you achieve any goal. Well over 100 studies, on everything from diet and exercise to negotiation and time management, have shown that deciding in advance when and where you will take specific steps to reach your goal (e.g., “If I am hungry and want a snack, then I will choose a healthy option like fruit or veggies,”) can double or triple your chances for success.

For instance, in one study looking at breast self-examination, researchers found that 100% of the women who were told to plan where and when they would perform self-exams actually did so in the following month, compared to only 53% of the group that didn’t plan. Similar results have been shown for getting cervical cancer screenings (92% of if-then planners, 60% of non-planners) and sticking to an exercise program (91% of if-then planners, 39% of non-planners).

The reason they work so well is that these plans speak the language of your brain – the language of contingencies. Humans are very good at encoding information in “If X, then Y” terms, and using these contingencies to (often unconsciously) guide our behavior. When you decide exactly when and where you will act on your goal, this form of planning creates a link in your brain between the situation or cue (the if) and the behavior that should follow (the then). Below your awareness, your brain starts scanning the environment, searching for the situation in the “if” part of your plan. As a result, your brain will seize the critical moment, even when you are busy doing other things.

Once the “if” part of your plan happens, the “then” part follows automatically. Your brain already knows what you want it to do, so now it can execute the plan without having to consciously think about it. If-then plans are sometimes described as creating “instant habits.” However, unlike many of our other habits, these help us reach our goals, rather than get in the way of them.

What about situations in which you are a manager or a teacher and you want the other person, an employee or a student, to adopt your goal? How can you do this without undermining the person’s sense of autonomy and competence?

This is an important question, because when people feel their goals are freely chosen, they experience intrinsic motivation - they enjoy what they do, find it interesting, put in more effort, and persist longer. So how can we give people the sense that their goals are freely chosen, when in fact we (as parents or teachers or managers) are in fact assigning the goal? The answer is to create the feeling of choice, using these three strategies:

First, make sure they understand why the goal they’ve been assigned has value. Too often, we tell others what they need to do, without taking the time to explain why it’s important, or how it fits into the bigger picture. No one ever really commits to a goal if they don’t see why it’s desirable for them to do it in the first place. Don’t assume the why is as obvious to them as it is to you.

Second, allow them, if possible, to decide how they will reach the goal - this can create the feeling of choice necessary to be intrinsically motivated. Allowing them to tailor their approach to their preferences and abilities will also give them heightened sense of control over the situation they find themselves in, which can only benefit performance.

Third, if you have to assign both the goal and the method for reaching it, try creating the feeling of choice by allowing them to make decisions about more peripheral aspects of the task. For instance, if your employees have to attend weekly team meetings to improve communication and collaboration (with both the goals and method for reaching it predetermined), you can have team members take turns deciding what the topic of the meeting will be each week, or even what kind of lunch will be ordered in. If your child doesn't want to eat their vegetables at dinner, allow them to choose the vegetable that will be served at the meal. Studies show that these more peripheral decisions create a feeling of choice, even when the choices aren’t particularly meaningful or relevant to the goal itself.

Around 10 years ago the field of positive psychology started to emerge which had the aim of complementing scientific psychology by studying positive human functioning in order to understand and identify effective interventions to build thriving in individuals, families, and communities. Do you consider your book to be a positive psychology book? Do you see yourself as a positive psychologist?

That's an interesting question. I'm not really sure whether to identify myself and my work in that way or not. I certainly am interested in how to help people thrive, and to help them become as effective as they can possibly be in achieving their goals - so in that sense, I am a positive psychologist, and my book is a positive psychology book. But part of my work has also been about identifying what typically goes wrong when we try to reach our goals, and what kinds of beliefs can sabotage our happiness as well as enhance it. In the end, I think the mission of positive psychology has been to promote balance in the field - to focus on joy as much as on pain. And I couldn't agree more with that mission.

I understand. What makes your book a must read for practitioners and students of psychology is that it provides an accessible state of the art overview of insights and techniques regarding goal setting, development and achievement. I would be very interested if you could say something about what your current research interests are..? What are some currently unanswered questions you would love explore or see explored?

Recently I've been working on creating simple but effective interventions to use with adolescents and college students, to focus their goals on getting better (learning goals) rather than being good (performance goals). The technique I use takes advantage of goal contagion, something I discuss in Succeed - the idea is that we can "catch" goals just by observing people who are pursuing them. The data we've collected so far suggests that this is effective not only in improving grades, but in facilitating better adjustment to college among first year students. In general, I'm very interested in finding ways to take maximum advantage of everything we've learned about how goals work, and I'd like to see more research that focuses on putting knowledge into practice.

Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals
The Psychology of Goals
Heidi Grant Halvorson’s blog on Psychology Today

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