Debunking the Myth that “Better Is Always More Difficult” “Maintaining possessions is more difficult than acquiring them.” – Demosthenes-IE Open Access
09 Jul 2019

Consumers, managers, and organizations, perform many of their everyday activities with a goal in mind. An important characteristic of any goal is how difficulty it appears to be; such difficulty judgments can influence important decisions such as whether to pursue the goal or not, how much effort to allocate in it, how to prioritize it vis-à-vis other goals, and so on.

 

But how do people judge the difficulty of a goal they face? This was the question investigated in the article “Attainment versus maintenance goals: Perceived difficulty and impact on goal choice,” co-authored by Antonios Stamatogiannakis (IE Business School, IE University), Amitava Chattopadhyay (INSEAD), and Dipankar Chakravarti (Virginia Tech, Pamplin College of Business). This paper appears in the November 2018 issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

Consumers, managers, and organizations, perform many of their everyday activities with a goal in mind. An important characteristic of any goal is how difficulty it appears to be; such difficulty judgments can influence important decisions such as whether to pursue the goal or not, how much effort to allocate in it, how to prioritize it vis-à-vis other goals, and so on.

 

But how do people judge the difficulty of a goal they face? This was the question investigated in the article “Attainment versus maintenance goals: Perceived difficulty and impact on goal choice,” co-authored by Antonios Stamatogiannakis (IE Business School, IE University), Amitava Chattopadhyay (INSEAD), and Dipankar Chakravarti (Virginia Tech, Pamplin College of Business). This paper appears in the November 2018 issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

 

Like much of the previous research, this paper also finds that the magnitude of the gap between where someone is and where someone wants to go is an important input in goal difficulty judgments: The bigger the gap, the harder the goal is judged to be. For instance, gaining € 100 is judged as more difficult than gaining € 50, which is judged as more difficult than gaining € 10. Similarly, losing 10 kilos is judged as more difficult than losing 5, which is judged as more difficult than losing 1.

 

But what happens when there is no gap? That is, how does someone judge the goal of maintaining his/ her money, or his/ her weight? Extrapolating from the above logic, a goal with no gap should be perceived as easier than a goal with any gap. The authors however find that this is not the case. Specifically, the absence of a gap is not treated as “a gap equal to zero”. Instead, it steers the process of judging goal difficulty towards other inputs; The extent to whether the goal environment is facilitating or inhibiting goal success.

Put simply, assessing the difficulty of the goal of increasing one’s savings will be driven by the magnitude of the desired increase; The bigger the increase, the harder the goal. However, assessing the difficulty of the goal of maintaining one’s savings will be driven by whether the circumstances are favourable for this financial goal or not. This circumstances may include, for instance, whether someone expects a raise, or some additional expenses.

 

Taken together, these mechanics can give rise to a counterintuitive phenomenon: Goals that feature a discrepancy may be judged as easier than goals that do not, even if objectively the opposite is true. Based on the above discussions, this pattern may arise when one (or both) of the following conditions are met. First, a really small (but still greater than zero) gap may influence heavily difficulty judgments, and thus lead to the impression that a goal is very easy. In contrast, a gap equal to zero may be relatively ignored in the difficulty judgment of the goal. Hence, the goal featuring a gap may be perceived as easier than the goal that does not feature a gap, although objectively the opposite is the case. Second, the influence of circumstances that are very unfavorable for goal success will be greater for a goal that features no gap, than for a goal that features a gap. Again, in this case, the former goal may be judged as more difficult, although objectively the opposite is true.

Three more things are worth noting. First, the processes described above are largely a result of different processes that the human brain follows when trying to assess goal difficulty. Thus, the results reported above do not hold when difficulty judgment has an obvious benchmark; when individuals judge comparatively the difficulty of goals that feature a gap versus goals that do not, they accurately think that the former are more difficult. Second, these effects mostly apply when individuals asses goals that are set by someone else (e.g., their manager; their fitness trainer; their investment consultant). When individuals set goals for themselves, goal difficulty assessment is often assessed a part of the process of choosing the exact goal level.

 

Third, these difficulty judgments influence real behavior. Specifically, the authors of the aforementioned paper asked some workers whether they prefer a certain bonus, or they would like to double or lose it based on whether they manage to work a little more than they usually do. They asked some other workers whether they prefer the same certain bonus, or they would like to double or lose it based on whether they manage to work as much as they usually do. Consistently with the results reported above, the workers who were asked to work more were more likely to risk their certain bonus, compared to the workers who were asked to work as usual!

 

You can find the full article on this topic at https://zenodo.org/record/2840086#.XRsjGugza70