Written Goals study, or is it studies? Many have reported that writing your goals down is sound and researched proof that you will be more successful and make more money. It must be true as it is often being quoted as coming from Yale or Harvard Business Schools. But alas this is fake news.
3% of Harvard MBAs Make Ten Times as Much as the Other 97% Combined
..or… Why 3% of Yale MBAs Make Ten Times as Much as the Other 97% Combined
Or so the written goal study story goes regarding personal effectiveness and performance…
UPDATE on written goals August 2017
Some blogs have talked about the inconsistency of the dates regarding the research about written goals. They are inconsistent in this piece as they reflect the “quotes” that exist on the web and allow people looking for the research to find this blog covering their existence or not.
In addition, one commentator suggested that I introduce confusion by talking about Yale and Harvard. Simply put, some articles and authors say the research occurred at Harvard, others at Yale. The reality is, whichever of these great establishments is quoted as doing the research in the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s, it is fake! It did not happen at either of these establishments.
The power of written goals
One question was said to have been asked:
“Have you set clear, written goals for your future and made plans to accomplish them?”
Is your Organisational Development (OD) or change process based on fact or fiction? Often methods and strategies we use in business and our organizations are based on what we read. But can we trust everything we read?
For a long time, I have heard of the 1953 Harvard study or the 1979 Yale study on the effects of written goals of graduates on the long-term performance or people. Many coaching, training and personal development providers quote one or the other as the reason why we should each have written life and performance goals. It seems that this link legitimises what they are saying.
Many often quote it as being:
There was a study done at Harvard between 1979 and 1989. Graduates of the MBA program were asked “Have you set clear written goals for your future and made plans to accomplish them?” The results of that question were:
- Only 3% had written goals and plans
- 13% had goals but not in writing
- 84% had no specific goals at all
10 years later Harvard interviewed the members of that class again and found:
1. The 13% who had goals but not in writing were earning on average twice as much as the 84% of those who had no goals at all
2. The 3% who had clear, written goals were earning on average 10 times as much as the other 97% of graduates all together. The only difference between the groups is the clarity of the goals they had for themselves
In 1953 a team of researchers interviewed Yale’s graduating seniors, asking them whether they had written down the specific goals that they wanted to achieve in life.
Twenty years later the researchers tracked down the same cohort and found that the 3% of people who had specific goals all those years before had accumulated more personal wealth than the other 97% of their classmates combined.
Now while there is evidence that people completing Harvard based MBAs do outperform others this is not linked to written goals per se.
Because of this, I was intrigued and in 2008 I started research on the origins to find the original research data. 100s of hours and dozens of emails later the results were in. There was no such study at Harvard or Yale universities or business schools.
Indeed even Harvard themselves say:
It has been determined that no “goals study” of the Class of 1953 actually occurred. In recent years, we have received a number of requests for information on a reported study based on a survey administered to the Class of 1953 in their senior year and a follow-up study conducted ten years later. This study has been described as how one’s goals at graduation related to success and annual incomes achieved during the period.
The secretary of the Class of 1953, who had served in that capacity for many years, did not know of [the study], nor did any of the fellow class members he questioned. In addition, a number of Yale administrators were consulted and the records of various offices were examined in an effort to document the reported study. There was no relevant record, nor did anyone recall the purported study of the Class of 1953, or any other class.
(Source :Where can I find the Yale study from 1953 about goal-setting?)
It seems that there were two early “reporters” of these studies –
- Mark McCormack (What They Don’t Teach You in the Harvard Business School) &
- Brian Tracy (Goals!).
Other self-development gurus that have helped to perpetuate the myth include Zig Ziglar, Tony Robbins and Tom Bay in “Look within or Do without”. Probably copied from Tracy or McCormack
Article Source: http://EzineArticles.com/655551
If you run a Google or Bing search for “Yale written goals study” or “Harvard written goals study” you will find 1000s of references. Unfortunately, none of them are true! (much like the references for SMART objectives in an earlier piece).
THIS RESEARCH DID NOT HAPPEN #fakenews
This can only be described as a myth or urban legend amongst life coaches, consultants and personal development/ success gurus.
If any training or coaching provider quotes this or similar “research or study”, then seriously question EVERYTHING else they say!!!
If you are into “self-help” books by any of the authors listed above, then ask yourself this question…
“If they publish untruths like this without any research can we really believe anything they say in their books?”
Written goal study Dominican University of California 2007
This research was not done by teams at Yale University or Harvard University, but by Gail Matthews (archive link) Gail Matthews (original, now broken link) about Gail Matthews PhD at Dominican University. You can read her research summary here (archive version), summary here or Gail Matthews research summary
Therefore, this study provides empirical evidence for the effectiveness of three coaching tools:
- commitment and
- writing down one’s goals.
This now means that there now is a study demonstrating that writing one’s goal enhances goal achievement. Although unlike the miss-quoted Yale or Harvard research this was not a longitudinal study. I have yet to see a full version of the research published anywhere, but many people quite this simple summary, where the summary provides little in the way of substance or qualitative of quantitative research. The fact it comes from a PhD at a known University seems to give it credit. If you follow the trail, you will see that most of this seemed to be used for a gamified weightloss system, and much of that site is broken, which suggests little development or further research. It does, however, legitimise the proof that written goals work, and helps support people that need proof of this.
Written Goals in Academic studies
The sad fact is that even in 2018, I find new evidence that references are made to one or other of these fake studies on MBA programmes, Human Resources Courses and books. Sites like the CIPD also conduct studies of studies into this area.
There is evidence of the opposite!
A Harvard Business School working paper, Goals Gone Wild, written by Lisa D. Ordóñez, Maurice E. Schweitzer, Adam D. Galinsky and Max H. Bazerman (Read the full paper here) reviewed research studies related to goals. Their conclusion was that the advantages of written goal setting have been exaggerated and the downside, the “systematic harm caused by goal setting,” has been largely ignored.
UPDATE Sept 2011
It seems there is a new/ variant myth that this “research” is attached to: “A research study by the Ford Foundation found that of the 10% of the population with specific goals…” etc well as you can guess, none of these sites have any credible references either. The story goes on…
UPDATE May 2018
Fixed referenced links – sorry but many sites keep changing links, thanks to the reader of this blog that messaged me, so I could correct them.