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Social and behavioural

Metaphors matter

Seeing our achievements as “completing a journey” helps maintain success.

16 August 2019

By Emma Young

Throughout our lives, we set ourselves goals — to pass an exam, run a marathon, lose 10 kilograms of excess weight or gain a promotion. Given the importance of such goals to our physical and psychological wellbeing, it's not surprising that there's has been a wealth of research into how best to set, work towards, and achieve them.

But let's say you succeed — what then? Psychologists have paid less attention to people's behaviour after they've achieved their goals. And although it's generally good for us to continue to study, exercise, eat healthily, work hard, and so on, this doesn't always transpire. For example, one follow-up of contestants who'd won the weight-loss TV show The Biggest Loser found that six years on, most weighed even more than they had at the start of the show.

However, a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition offers a solution. People are more likely to maintain good behaviours, the researchers find, if instead of thinking about achieving a goal as "arriving at a destination," they view it as "completing a journey."

We rely heavily on metaphor when considering abstract concepts and aspects of our lives. So Szu-Chi Huang and Jennifer Aaker at the Stanford Graduate School of Business reasoned that thinking about a goal as the completion of a journey might prompt people to reflect on how they had been at the start, and all the ups and downs along the way. This might make them feel that they had changed to be the kind of person who engages in these specific behaviours, and make them more likely to maintain them.

In a series of six studies involving more than 1,600 people, this is exactly what the pair found. They first looked at two groups comprising more than 400 American students and university staff who had recently achieved either an academic or a fitness goal. Participants were asked to think about how their experience of attaining the goal was like "completing a journey" or "reaching a destination," or were just told to think about achieving the goal without a metaphor attached. Those who viewed the goal as the completion of a journey not only expressed stronger intentions to continue the goal-related behaviours, but actually did so (the fitness journey group were more likely to sign up for an ongoing fitness programme, for example).

In subsequent research, the team further characterised this effect. In one study, 265 dieters set themselves daily calorie intake goals and tracked their consumption over seven days. After the end of the diet programme, those who thought about their achievement as the completion of a journey were again more likely to indicate that they would continue their dieting behaviour. And importantly, this group also had greater feelings of personal growth, suggesting this could be the underlying mechanism for the effect.

Another study, which involved a 14-day walking programme with a goal of achieving 100,000 steps, revealed that the journey metaphor encouraged beneficial behaviour after participants had attained their goal, but not when they were getting close to achieving it. When a goal is in sight, but not yet achieved, "focusing on the destination aspects of this path could be more motivating, likely because it accentuated the end goal that one still needed to achieve," the pair notes.

And the phenomenon was not just restricted to American participants. In a final study, the researchers followed 106 executives who were finishing a business education programme in Ghana. In what they were told was an exit interview, the participants were encouraged to describe their attainment of their qualification using a journey or a destination metaphor. Six months on, members of the journey group were more likely to be using practices they had learned on the course.

It's true that getting people to think about their journey to achieving a goal might not always work, or may even backfire — if the journey has been very hard or unpleasant, for example. However, the researchers add, "it is our hope that this research serves as the beginning of a journey of diverse research programs that utilize a variety of metaphors to enhance goal pursuers' chances of maintaining their success."

Further reading

– It's the journey, not the destination: How metaphor drives growth after goal attainment

About the author

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest