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How Goal Specificity Shapes Motivation: A Reference Points Perspective

Scott G Wallace, Jordan Etkin

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Abstract Consumers often pursue goals that lack specific end states, such as goals to lose as much weight as possible or to pay off as much debt as possible. Yet despite considerable interest in the consequences of setting nonspecific (vs. specific) goals, how goal specificity affects motivation throughout goal pursuit is less well understood. The current research explores the role of reference points in shaping goal specificity’s effects. We propose that goal specificity alters what reference point consumers spontaneously adopt during goal pursuit: for specific goals, the end state tends to be more salient, but for nonspecific goals, the initial state should be more salient. Five studies investigate how this difference in focal reference points shapes (1) the relationship between goal progress and motivation, (2) when (i.e., at what level of goal progress) goal specificity produces the greatest difference in motivation, and (3) the underlying process driving these effects. Our findings advance understanding of the relationship between goal specificity, goal progress, and motivation, and in doing so, underscore the critical role that reference points play in goal-directed behavior. In addition, the findings offer practical insight into how best to set important financial, health, and other consumer goals to enhance motivation.