Study Says Vague Goals Help Achieve New Year’s Resolutions

  • Researchers at the David Eccles School of Business Say ‘Fuzzy’ Boundaries May Trump Rigid Goals When It Comes to Weight Loss, Physical Training and Mental Acuity

SALT LAKE CITY--()--At the dawn of 2011, millions of Americans will make New Year’s resolutions, determined to lose weight, exercise, quit smoking or conquer any of myriad other challenges. Within weeks, most of those well-intentioned vows will fail.

Himanshu and Arul Mishra, husband and wife assistant professors of marketing at the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah, not only think they know why failure seems to stalk the resolute – they believe they have found the key to turning that sorry trend around. When it comes to achieving goals, “fuzzy boundaries” often boost performance better than rigidly defined objectives.

In their paper, “In Praise of Vagueness: Malleability of Vague Information as a Performance Booster,” to be published in an upcoming edition of the journal Psychological Science, the Mishras, co-authors along with Stanford Marketing Professor Baba Shiv, acknowledge their findings may seem counter-intuitive in consumer mindsets, where precise information and goals are dogma.

“That has long been the presumption, that people make the best decisions when they have the most accurate and precise information [about what determines success]. Actually, where it comes down to behavior, people do well when they have the ability to distort that information,” Arul Mishra says.

Himanshu Mishra adds that while marketing executives may benefit from implementing some aspects of encouraging more flexible goal-setting, the paper’s findings are more targeted to the consumers. “If we can help consumers make better (goal-setting) decisions, in the end it will be better for business, too,” he says.

For example, Americans spend some $70 billion on weight-loss products and programs every year, determined to lose a specified amount of weight. Others join health and exercise clubs, setting precise goals for strength measured by weights lifted or distances run over set times. When those firm goals are not completely reached, consumers brand themselves as failures and desperately move on to another product or program, or just give up entirely.

In addition to observing how exact versus “fuzzy” motivational data affect ultimate success in weight loss and physical fitness, researchers also studied implications of having precise versus more flexible standards for gauging mental acuity. In all three cases, the researchers found improved performance when motivational information was vaguer than precise, allowing participants to perceive their progress in a more positive manner.

“Not knowing to the ‘nth’ decimal on how one is progressing lets people generate positive expectancies which allow them to perform better. The ‘fuzzy’ boundaries afforded by vague information allow people to [interpret] vague information in a desired manner,” the paper concludes. “This latitude positively influences behavior by affecting outcome expectancies. Conversely, precise information by its very nature prevents people from distorting information and forces them to be objective about their expectancies.”

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About the David Eccles School of Business

Founded in 1917 in Salt Lake City, the David Eccles School of Business has programs in entrepreneurship, technology innovation and venture capital management. Emphasizing interdisciplinary education and experiential learning, it launched the country’s largest student-run venture capital fund with $18.3 million, and is home to the Pierre Lassonde Entrepreneur Center and the Sorenson Center for Discovery and Innovation. Approximately 3,500 students are enrolled in its undergraduate, graduate and executive degree programs as well as joint MBA programs in architecture, law and health administration. For more information, visit


David Eccles Public Relations
Alex Koritz, 801-461-9795

Release Summary

Researchers at the David Eccles School of Business say ‘Fuzzy’ boundaries may trump rigid goals when it comes to weight loss, physical training and mental acuity


David Eccles Public Relations
Alex Koritz, 801-461-9795