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Writing Down Your Goals – The Harvard Written Goal Study. Fact or Fiction?

I recently published a post about Why 3% of Harvard MBAs Make Ten Times as Much as the Other 97% Combined.  In that post, I discuss a Harvard study concerning the effects of goal setting, and specifically written goals, on future financial success.  A few readers informed me that the study was a myth, and I decided to do some due diligence and follow up on the information you, my readers, provided.

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Just Like Hiring My Own Research Staff – Google Book Search

As I mentioned in that past article, the study is sourced from the book What They Don’t Teach You in the Harvard Business School, by Mark McCormack. I was curious, and searched for the actual study online, but was unable to find it.  This did not concern me much, as I generally am unable to find the actual publication when I look for a study. When I do, I typically can only read an abstract and require membership to access the full paper.  Given how old the study was, I also considered that perhaps the paper had not been archived online.

I remembered seeing the study mentioned in other books, and when I searched for harvard written goals on Google Book Search, I came across over a thousand references. I had hoped to find a handful of references – a thousand was unbelievable.

Based on how many times I had heard the story, and how many times it was referenced in published books, I decided to write my post based, having done a reasonable amount of research to validate it.

It Isn’t True Just Because The Internet Said So – Or Books Either, Apparently

I was first tipped off that this study might not exist by Frank over at The Happy Rock who referred me to his post Can’t Believe Everything You Read: 1953 Yale Goal Study.

I had read the study was conducted at Harvard, and thus when researching, I searched for “Harvard written goals study.”  After seeing Frank’s post, I have since learned that sometimes the study references a Harvard class of 1979, and sometimes a Yale class of 1953.  I went back to Google Book Search and searched for Yale as well, and found additional references to such a Yale study.  The premise and results were always the same.  Either this was a reproducible experiment, or something was a little fishy.

Fast Company’s Investigation

I decided to look for conclusive evidence to prove or disprove the study’s existence.  Many websites (and books mentioned previously) purported it to be true.  Others, such as Frank’s post, pointed me to this 1996 article at Fast Company, If Your Goal Is Success, Don’t Consult These Gurus.  In the article, they discuss interviewing members of the Yale 1953 class and being unable to find evidence to substantiate the story.  However, I was not completely convinced by their interviews that there was no study done.  Since the graduates would be in their 70s by now, and perhaps difficult to find, it is unlikely, but possible, that the graduates contacted by Fast Company were simply not graduates sampled in the study.

Googling for Google Answers

On Google Answers, I found someone had offered $20 in 2004 for a study showing the effects of writing down a goal on its achievement. The question was never answered, though a passing reference was made to the Harvard and Yale studies being myths.  One enterprising researcher offered to be a guinea pig (along with a few of his friends) and conduct a one month study of the effect written goals on themselves. It does not appear that he was taken up on his offer.

While both these things provided evidence that it was hard to find the study or proof that it happened, I wanted further confirmation – and I got it.

From The Horse’s Mouth:  Yale Says There Is No 1953 Goal Setting Study

I finally came across a page at the Yale Law Library that asks “Where can I find the Yale study from 1953 about goal-setting?“.  The answer, in it’s entirety:

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?)

So it appeared that my urging people to write down their goals was based on a study that never happened.  Fortunately, I stumbled across something else quite interesting while researching the validity of the Yale and/or Harvard study.

A Study Validating The Effectiveness of Written Goals

Among the results of my online research for this article, I came across an actual study done with results received from 149 participants.  They too believe the story of the Harvard/Yale study to be a myth – and thus conducted a study of their own!  The results of the study:

The positive effect of written goals was supported: Those who wrote their goals accomplished significantly more than those who did not write their goals.

[...]

  • This study provides empirical evidence for the effectiveness of three coaching tools: accountability, commitment and writing down one’s goals.
  • There now is a study demonstrating that writing one’s goal enhances goal achievement. However, it was not done at Harvard or Yale, but at Dominican University.

(Source: Summary of Recent Goals Research(PDF here: Gail Matthews Written Goal Study Dominican University), by Gail Matthews, Ph.D., Dominican University)

Note: the original links I had for this article keep moving, so I am now hosting a copy of the PDF since the links appear to break every couple weeks.

The moral of the story: Don’t believe everything you read online. Nonetheless, the initial advice I put forth is still sound – write down your goals!

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By Sid Savara
Published July 05th 2014
4.8 Stars
138 votes