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Goals as identities: Boosting perceptions of healthy-eater identity for easier goal pursuit

Abstract

People who think of their personal goals as identities are more likely to engage in goal-consistent behavior. However, no research has explored whether learning to frame goals as identities can be an effective strategy for pursuing goals in daily life. Across a series of studies, we assessed how incorporating a goal as part of one’s identity impacts goal-consistent choices. In a pilot study, we established a positive correlational relationship between natural goal identification and goal-consistent decision-making. Individuals with stronger healthy-eater identities made healthier food choices in a behavioral choice task. In Studies 1 and 2, we employed longitudinal interventions to teach people to frame their healthy eating goals as identities. We found that people who learned to frame their goals as identities made healthier choices, felt their goals were easier to pursue, reported greater success at managing goals, and made food choices that they both perceived to be healthier and that were rated as healthier by independent evaluators. Across studies, our findings suggest that thinking of goals as identities makes it easier to engage in goal-consistent choices.

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Notes

  1. The current scholarly literature uses several terms and measurement tools for assessing the general construct that we are calling goal identification. For example, Goal Self-Concordance scales have been used to assess the extent to which people’s goal-oriented motivations align with their authentic interests and values (Sheldon and Elliot 1999). Other self-report scales, such as the Healthy-Eater Identity Scale (Strachan and Brawley 2009) and the Exercise Identity Questionnaire (Anderson and Cychosz 1994) aim to assess a broad integration with core identity beyond alignment with authentic interests and values, directly assessing a person’s beliefs about the extent to which their goals are identities. We acknowledge that these various operationalizations (e.g., autonomous motivation, self-concordance, identity measures) are overlapping constructs, thus we discuss the background research collectively.

  2. Across studies, we test these questions within the domain of health as dieting goals are commonly held by college students (Milyavskaya et al. 2015). However, we do not expect there is anything specific about this domain that would not translate to other goal domains.

  3. Participants also responded to two additional measures of goal identity, including a single-item visual Goal-Self Overlap scale (modeled from Aron et al. 1992) and a five-item Goal Self-Concordance measure (Sheldon and Elliot 1999; Koestner et al. 2002). The three measures of goal identity (Healthy-Eater Identity, Goal-Self Overlap, and Goal Self- Concordance) were highly correlated (α = .91). For simplicity and ease of interpretation, we use the Healthy-Eater Identity Scale for analyses across all studies. However, analyzing the results using a composite measure of all three does not change the results. Analyses using the three-item measure are reported in the supplemental materials.

  4. Participant were eligible for study participation if they responded that they agree or strongly agree with the statement “I have goals to eat healthy” in a pre-screen measure at the beginning of the semester.

  5. As in the pilot study, participants also responded to two additional measures of goal-identity, the single-item visual Goal-Self Overlap scale (modeled from Aron et al. 1992) and a five-item Goal Self-Concordance measure (Sheldon and Elliot 1999; Koestner et al. 2002). For ease of interpretation, we again only discuss the Healthy-Eater Identity Scale, however using a composite scale does not change the results. In addition, for an implicit measure of healthy-eater identity, participants responded to an implicit healthy eating identity Implicit Association Task (IAT) (modeled from Young et al. 2013). Full analyses using each measure are presented in the supplemental materials.

  6. Although the primary purpose of the nightly surveys was to remind participants in both experimental conditions to continue thinking about their New Year’s Resolution, the surveys also provided participant opportunities to report their experiences throughout the study. We did not have specific predictions about these daily measures. Analyses comparing daily mood, self-reported healthiness, and progress between conditions are reported in the supplemental analyses.

  7. To be consistent with the instructions we gave in the computerized food choice task, we allowed participants to choose a snack at the end of the study. An anonymous reviewer suggested we also explore whether the identity manipulation influenced snack choices. Since there were a variety of snacks participants could choose from, we ran exploratory analyses predicting the amount of calories in participants’ snack choices. We conducted a one-way ANCOVA controlling for baseline healthy-eater identity. There were no significant differences in snack choice calories between the identity condition (M = 129.74 cal, SE = 14.37), the goal setting condition (M = 135.87 cal, SE = 13.85), or the control condition (M = 142.63 cal, SE = 14.93), F(3,155) = 0.66, p = .56. While we might have expected participants to make healthier choices after the identity manipulation, there may be several reasons why we did not observe a difference in this measure. Specifically, unlike in the computerized food choice task, we did not offer a binary choice of unambiguously healthy or unhealthy snacks, nor were participants aware of nutritional information when making their choice. Rather we offered a variety of snacks that may have been ambiguous in the extent to which they were personally perceived as “healthy” (e.g., a granola bar could be healthy or unhealthy depending on the other options or on personal beliefs). There also might be other extraneous factors that affected snack choice. For example, participants did not actually eat the food in the lab; several participants mentioned they would give the snack to their roommate/friend. We also did not assess participant hunger or time of day, both of which may have influenced momentary snack choice and introduced random variance into the measure. Thus, we do not believe snack choice in the lab is a strong test of participants’ healthy eating behavior. Rather we believe Study 3, in which we assess behavior in participants’ every day life, is a much stronger test of the relationship between identity and real eating behavior.

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Dominick, J.K., Cole, S. Goals as identities: Boosting perceptions of healthy-eater identity for easier goal pursuit. Motiv Emot 44, 410–426 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-020-09824-8

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Keywords

  • Motivation
  • Goals
  • Healthy-eater identity
  • Ease
  • Self-control