Case Studies

Goal Frustration

Research Question: When we are unable to carry out our intentions, how does that affect our future actions? Specifically, after an initial good intention is frustrated, how likely are people to make a second good choice?

Hypothesis: Moral licensing suggests that after doing something good, people are less likely to do something else good because they already feel like they are a good person. We predicted that even merely planning to do something good (without actually doing it) is enough to make us feel like good people. As a result, we predicted that after forming a responsible intention for a first choice subjects would be less likely to make a second responsible choice, even if the first intention did not ultimately result in the expected good outcome.

Experiment: Subjects were asked to imagine they had a weight loss goal and were visiting a vending machine. Subjects in the control condition were told that the vending machine only offered Oreos. Subjects in the treatment condition were told that the vending machine typically offers Oreos and Kind bars and the subjects were asked to select which snack to buy. Those who selected Kind bars were informed that when they walked to the vending machine it was out of Kind bars so instead, they purchased the Oreos. Subjects in both conditions were then told to imagine that they were going out to dinner with friends the next night, and were asked to select an entrée and a side dish.

Results: While only 14.3% of those in the control condition selected the extremely indulgent combination of fries and a burger, 32.5% of those in the goal frustration condition chose it. This demonstrates that forming the intention to purchase the Kind bar (even if that intention is frustrated) is enough to cause more indulgent future choices.

Health and Wellness

Application: Understanding how and why we are inclined to choose to do the “responsible” thing is critical for taking steps to increase our ability to make the right choice. While previous research on licensing has shown that when people do the right thing they are less likely to do so again, this research indicates that merely intending to do the right thing can have a similar effect, even when that intention is frustrated. Knowing this allows us to better understand the challenges of getting people to act responsibly, whether as a friend, as a company, or even as a government.