The 1953 Harvard Study on Goals

A while back, a friend of mine who knows about my passion for personal development suggested that I should read the book 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman. He said that it exposed some of the popular myths that pervade modern self improvement literature. It then transpired that my daughter actually bought me a copy and I have been meaning to get around to reading it since Christmas. Today I started skimming it and right there in the introduction, he tackles perhaps one of the biggest myths on goal-setting: the 1953 Harvard Study.

Some time ago, I remember Jack Black telling a version of the story during one of his seminars. It concerns a study on goal-setting that had apparently been conducted at Harvard in 1953. Before he began, he introduced the story as something that had significantly impacted his thinking when he first heard it, and there is no question that it is a powerful story.

From memory, the story goes like this:

In 1953, Harvard decided to conduct a survey of all the students that were leaving that year. There were lots of questions in the survey asking about all manner of things like religious and political preferences and many other things too. One of the questions was: do you have your goals written down? It turned out that just 3% of the students answered ‘yes’ to this question.

Fast forward, twenty years: the university decided to run another survey twenty years later. Originally, they were simply going to repeat the same study, but someone had the bright idea of using the money differently. They decided to contact all the students that had left twenty years earlier and see what they were up to.

It was a massive research project. Some of the students had died, but they found all of the remainder. When they analysed the data, they discovered that the 3% who had taken the time and trouble to properly quantify their goals were worth financially more than the other 97% put together.

Just like Jack, the story also powerfully impacted me. Actually, on reflection, I think it was more Jack’s reaction that so impressed me. Here was a man who had achieved what I was only aspiring to achieve, at the time, and he said this study was proof that having written goals was very important. It certainly made me think because none of my goals were written down at the time.

Somewhere along the road, I decided that I might include this story in one of my workshops and whilst researching using my old pal Google, I discovered another strikingly similar story that also pervades the internet. It involves an apparent study at Yale in 1979 and the detail of the stories are remarkably similar.

Depending upon which version of the story you actually come across, the dates can sometimes be reversed i.e. sometimes we read of the Yale 1953 Study on goals, for example. Because of these factors and without wishing to spend a disproportionate amount of my time researching the matter, I concluded that the story was probably an urban myth.

In Wiseman’s book, he mentions the writer Lawrence Tabak, of The Fast Company magazine, who apparently researched the matter back in 2007. He says that Tabak had also concluded that the study was probably an urban myth. Whilst further researching the matter for this post, I found the following answer from Yale: Yale 1953 Study.

For all of the above reasons, I personally think it is probably reasonable to conclude that such a study probably never happened. So, why should this story have proliferated itself though so much self improvement literature? It reminds me of something that I remember someone saying about Moses, ‘if Moses had not existed, it would have been necessary to have invented him’.

The facts are that goal-setting does work. Having a clear mental image of your destination, your mission, is important. Understanding how your major purpose can be divided into individual goals that you can focus upon is definitely beneficial and writing down those goals certainly helps to keep you focussed upon what is important. There is an abundance of anecdotal evidence to support these claims, but perhaps there is not sufficient academic evidence, and that, in my opinion, is what has led someone, somewhere to invent this story, in all probability.

Sadly, those who want to provide support for their own teachings appear to have simply taken on board the story without proper research into the matter. For that reason, Richard Wiseman’s book, which brings a bit of much needed academic insight to the subject of personal development, is well worth reading.

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