Lots of people hire personal trainers or join group fitness classes hoping to lose weight. Yet many fail to meet their goals. New research suggests that “progress bias”—overestimating progress and underestimating setbacks—may be one reason your clients don’t succeed.

Published in the Journal of Consumer Research (2015; doi:10.1086/679307), the report determined how precisely people monitored their goals while seeking to achieve a variety of objectives, from saving money to burning calories. The researchers found evidence that many people give too much credit to small successes, such as getting in a workout, and don’t give
enough attention to setbacks, like eating half a pizza shortly after. From there, expectations for goal achievement are skewed, and disappointment often follows. And, as fitness professionals know all too well, people who are continually disappointed tend to abandon their goals.

In one of seven studies included in the report, 119 college undergraduates were encouraged to set a goal of achieving a 70-calorie deficit; those who succeeded would get a $5 reward. They were then given two tasks: Burn 50 calories and consume 50 calories. During the calorie-burning intervention, participants stepped up and down on a platform until a researcher told them to stop. The students were unaware that this was the “50-calorie” mark.

They then ate a 50-calorie energy bar, but were not told how many calories
the bar contained. Half the participants then learned how much energy they had just expended and consumed, effectively neutralizing any progress bias. The other half were given no feedback, except to be told they had “not yet reached the goal of burning 70 net calories.”

At that point, all participants were given the chance to complete a second round of exercise to reach the initial goal of a 70-calorie deficit and attain the $5 reward. The students also completed a brief questionnaire that asked how many more calories they believed they needed
to burn to reach the goal and how long a subsequent exercise session would need to last for them to get there.

According to study results, participants in the second, no-feedback group, exhibited significant progress bias. On average, they believed they needed to burn only 49 more calories, placing them 21 calories short of the initial goal. As could be expected, the feedback group was more successful at determining how many calories were left to burn (they were off by less than 1.5 calories), and this group also exercised for several minutes longer than the no-feedback group.

Interestingly, no-feedback group participants appeared more steadfast in their resolve to achieve their goal, yet they consistently stopped short of achieving it. The review authors theorized that over time this disparity might diminish willingness to work toward a goal.

“Although additional tests are needed to verify the robustness of these findings, [this study] suggests that the progress bias may help by encouraging persistence toward a goal but also hurt by leading consumers to disengage because they inaccurately believe they have attained a greater level of overall progress than is the case,” the authors concluded.

What do you do to prevent your clients from falling into a progress bias trap? Send your tips to [email protected]

Ryan Halvorson

Ryan Halvorson is an award-winning writer and editor. He is a long-time author and presenter for IDEA Health & Fitness Association, fitness industry consultant and former director of group training for Bird Rock Fit. He is also a Master Trainer for TriggerPoint.

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