By Thomas L. Webb, Department of Psychology, The University of Sheffield, the UK
How are you getting on with your goal to reduce the amount of sugar that you eat and lose 10kg? Chances are that you don’t really know – or even want to know. In situations like these, people tend to behave like ostriches and bury their heads in the sand, intentionally avoiding or rejecting information that would help them to monitor their goal progress. Research on this “ostrich problem” suggests that people often do not keep track of their progress (e.g., step on weighing scales, read the packets of food that they buy), in part, because doing so can make them feel bad about themselves – e.g., they realise that they weigh more than hoped and that they still consume too much sugar. However, theory and evidence suggest that keeping track of progress helps people to identify discrepancies between their current and desired states that warrant action. The implication is that avoiding monitoring makes it difficult to identify the need to act and the most appropriate way to do so. The ostrich problem therefore represents an opportunity for healthcare professionals (and others) to help people to monitor their progress and capitalise on the benefits of so doing. Perhaps not surprisingly then, we found good evidence that prompting people to monitor their progress helps people to achieve goals across a range of domains.