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Open Access Publications from the University of California

A Theory of Goal Maintenance: A Distinct and Vivid Pre-Goal Self Predicts Post-Goal Maintenance Motivation

  • Author(s): John, Elicia
  • Advisor(s): Hershfield, Hal E
  • Shu, Suzanne B
  • et al.

I develop and test a theory of goal maintenance which posits that individuals who achieve a life-changing goal – such as getting out of debt, becoming sober, or losing a substantial amount of weight – are more likely to maintain the progress achieved during goal pursuit if they psychologically distance themselves from the pre-goal self and routinely engage in activities that activate memories of the past, less flattering self. This theory of goal maintenance builds on prior research in identity appraisal (Wilson & Ross, 2001), vividness and intertemporal choice (Hershfield et al., 2011), and self-discrepancy (Higgins, 1987), as it relates intertemporal discrepancies in self-state representation to motivation and behavior. I applied this theory of goal maintenance to weight loss maintenance. Through a series of six studies, I provide evidence that goal maintenance is a distinct psychological phenomenon from goal pursuit along the dimensions of past self salience and psychological distance; and I also show that activating memories of a past, overweight self and feeling more psychologically distant from this self lead to implicit goal maintenance behavior, such as a higher willingness to pay for healthy versus unhealthy items and greater interest in learning about healthy behaviors and topics. Additionally, I provide evidence across studies that past self salience is more associated with a prevention regulatory focus (i.e. preventing unhealthy behaviors) whereas psychological distance is more associated with a promotion regulatory focus (i.e. promoting healthy behaviors). Further, a longitudinal study of a small sample of individuals examined whether the positive effects of salience and psychological distance on weight maintenance behaviors may persist over time and outside of a laboratory environment.

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