Research & Insights

To Meet Your Goals, Change Your Motivation

By Renee Heisner

Every New Year, millions make resolutions to lead healthier lives, yet, some are more successful than others.

New research sheds light on what motivates some people to keep that healthy change, while others reach for a donut. Turns out, the types of goals we set for ourselves is key to lasting change.

People who set goals that they want to achieve, rather than ones they feel like they have to achieve, are more successful in resisting temptation and following through on their objectives, according to psychologist Marina Milyavskaya and her colleagues.

These findings were based off a set of four experiments published in the May 2015 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Applied.

In one experiment, participants – made up of undergraduates from a large university – completed an online questionnaire assessing their motivations for eating healthy and whether they were driven by “have-to” or “want-to” goals.

In the survey, participants were asked to rate how true statements like “eating healthy is part of the way I have chosen to live my life” (want-to motivation), and “I feel I must absolutely be thin” (have-to motivation) were for them. To measure motivation, the survey also asked participants questions like “Why are you regulating your eating behavior?” and “Why do you try to eat healthy?”

Researchers then used a special technique to measure the participants’ automatic, subconscious attitudes toward different kinds of foods. Using a computer program, participants were asked to quickly press a button labeled as either “pleasant” or “unpleasant” when certain foods – like cake or carrots – appeared on screen.

“People with greater want-to motivation for eating healthy had a more positive automatic response to healthy foods and a less positive one to unhealthy foods,” according to the research.  

In another experiment, researchers examined how “have-to” versus “want-to” motivations influenced participants’ self-control around daily temptations such as “feeling hungry,” “not enough time to cook” and “someone else (parents, roommate) buys junk food.”  

Participants used the same computer program that measured their automatic, subconscious attitudes toward different kinds of foods and then took a survey that measured their motivation to eat healthy and their perceived temptations.

The researchers found that participants driven by “want-to” motivations were less likely to see the desirability of temptations, suggesting more self-control.

So, if individuals are going to sustain healthy behavior change and avoid temptations, fostering “want-to” motivations is an effective strategy.  

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Applied

Marina Milyavskaya, Nora Hope, and Richard Koestner, McGill University
Michael Inzlicht, University of Toronto


Posted: January 18, 2016
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