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.

But…did this study really happen?  Let’s find out

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.

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

I had read the study was conducted at Harvard, and thus when researching, I searched for “Harvard written goals study.”
I have since learned that sometimes the study references a Harvard class of 1979, and sometimes a Yale class of 1953.

I went researched on Google Book Search 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.

[nextpage title=”From Researchers to The Yale Law Library”] 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.

While 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.

[nextpage title=”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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