Wednesday, July 10, 2013

What Should I Believe? (Part 3)

Subtitle:  Should I Believe What I Read on the Internet?

Of course not.  This shouldn't even be a question.  We even make up our own memories

Yet if we find a compelling fiction that many people want to be true, it will be repeated over and over again.

I once read online that 80% of Americans think goals are a good idea, but fewer than 4% of that group have goals and write them down.  I will soon be doing a workshop called Goalsetting: The Dark Side, so I went in search of that statistic.

I didn't find it, but I did find this:

"According to a study conducted by Dave Kohl, professor emeritus at Virginia Tech, 
  • 80 percent of Americans say they don’t have goals.
  • Another 16 percent do have goals, but they don’t write them down.
  • Less than 4 percent write down their goals, and 
  • Less than 1 percent review them regularly.  This small percentage of Americans earn nine times more, over the course of their lifetimes, than those who don’t set goals."

I found reference to this study over and over again.  However, I couldn't find the actual study anywhere.  I did find Dave Kohl and wrote him last last night:

Dear Dr. Kohl,

As I’m sure you know, a David Kohl from Virginia Tech is all over the internet regarding some research into goalsetting.  The articles all say that David Kohl conducted a goalsetting study with remarkable findings.  I did find several speeches by you to agricultural groups in which you mention the importance of setting goals, but I can’t find the study anywhere.  Does such a study exist?

To the credit of his office, they wrote me back this morning:

Thanks for your e-mail. The goal-setting research is based primarily on anecdotal evidence gathered over the years. Some of the points have been attributed to a Yale study that has been widely quoted by many, but which we found recently cannot be confirmed by Yale.

Dr. Kohl's office gave me this link to Yale.  Here is the information there:

Question & Answer
Question:Where can I find the Yale study from 1953 about goal-setting?
Answer: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.

So we are left with "anecdotal evidence gathered over the years."  People who think goals are a good idea love the statistics.  I do. 

Dr. Kohl -- whose own office denied the reliability of the statistics -- loves those statistics and continues to repeat the results of the "study."  A blogger attended Dr. Kohl's lecture  at a New Century Farmer conference on July 10, 2012 (Note: exactly one year ago today) and wrote this:
"Then, he [David Kohl] talked about the importance of setting goals. He said that 80 percent of all people have no goals, 16 percent have mental goals (those that are not written down), and the remaining 4 percent have goals that are written down. The 16 percent who have mental goals will encounter profits three times higher than those without goals. The elite 4 percent with goals written down will make nine times more than those without goals. He encouraged us all to set our own goals in order to become successful."
Goal-setting leads to $$.  Maybe it does -- and wouldn't it be nice to think so.  It makes it easier to blame the victims of systemic inequality.


  1. A couple of researchers have done the work to thoroughly discredit Dr. Kohn's statistics. Here and other places:
    They cite a study that found that sharing your goals with another person and checking back with that person will make it more likely that you achieve your goals. The articles claim that this study was done by Gail Matthews at Dominican University in LA. None of the articles mentioning this study show a date that it was done. I find that very suspicious. The only evidence of a possible date is on Dr. Matthews's own website here:
    where she says this, "I have just completed initial analysis of my research on the factors which enhance achievement of business and work-related goals."
    She provides an undated pdf of these results. The website gives her office hours for 2006.

    1. I wrote Dr. Gail Matthews at the Dominican University saying, "Could you please tell me the date that your goals study was done. Was it published anywhere?"

      She wrote me back this morning saying, "I'm currently working on getting it published."

    2. In 2017, Yale University updated their response to the question about the goals study, here

  2. I heard all that at least 20 years ago at a teachers' professional development session. Here are some more statistics: At least 92% of things said from a podium at teacher's PD session is designed to manipulate the staff to work harder for the benefit of the session organizers, not the students. Between 96 and 98% of the session organizers are goal oriented people and there is no reason everyone should think like they do. When teachers were sent to retreats organized by the Moonies, by Scientologists and by Teacher groups, 68% said the Teacher retreats were the most manipulative.

    Of course, don't take my word for this.

  3. Thanks for writing this up. I was looking for the source to Kohl's quote myself and could never find the right reference. The Yale study was debunked already, so if Kohl was referencing that, then there isn't merit to his particular statement (with regard to the success rate of writing goals down, at least).

    It's crazy how people attributed his quote to a study performed by Kohl... when his area of expertise is in agriculture and not human behavior.