The University of Sheffield
Department of Psychology

European Research Council logoMan with head in the sand (medium)

The Ostrich Problem

When and why people fail to monitor their goal progress

An ERC-funded Starting Grant awarded to Dr Thomas Webb

November 2011 - October 2015

About the project

One of the most significant challenges facing science and society is how to promote lasting changes in people’s behaviour. What kinds of interventions influence the behaviours that lead to obesity or persuade people to use less energy in their homes? This project argues that one reason that people struggle to change is that they fail to monitor the relation between their current behaviour and their desired behaviour. For example, few people watch their weight, monitor their household energy consumption, check their bank balances, look at nutrition labels on food and so on.

This active ignoring of information about one’s current standing relative to one’s goals – termed here ‘the ostrich problem’ – is part of popular culture, yet current scientific perspectives assume that people will actively monitor and seek information on their progress. As a consequence, theoretical frameworks fail to adequately describe and predict the outcomes of behaviour change efforts and current interventions fall short of promise. The project aims to challenge the assumption made by current theoretical frameworks and to investigate the nature and implications of the ostrich problem. The research will seek to explain why the ostrich problem exists and test avenues for intervention.

Papers

Webb, T. L., Chang, B., & Benn, Y. (2013). "The ostrich problem": Motivated avoidance or rejection of information on goal progress. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7(11), 794-807. DOI:  10.1111/spc3.12071 onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/spc3.12071/pdf

Conference papers

Benn, Y. (2014, July). Measuring progress monitoring: Issues and solutions. Paper presented at the 17th General Meeting of the European Association of Social Psychology, Amsterdam, Holland. Abstract

Benn, Y. (2014, July). ‘How am I doing?’ Understanding how people monitor their goal progress. Symposium organized for the 17th General Meeting of the European Association of Social Psychology, Amsterdam, Holland. Abstract

Chang, B. (2014, July). ‘How do people monitor their progress on personal goals? Paper presented at the 17th General Meeting of the European Association of Social Psychology, Amsterdam, Holland. Abstract.

Harkin, B. (2014, July). Does prompting monitoring of goal progress facilitate self-regulation? A Meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Paper presented at the 17th General Meeting of the European Association of Social Psychology, Amsterdam, Holland. Abstract.

Webb, T. L. (2014, July). Using European funding to develop an independent career in social psychology: The ERC Starting Grant. Paper presented at the 17th Conference of the European Association for Social Psychology, Amsterdam, Holland.

Benn, Y., Webb, T. L., Chang, B., Sun, Y., Wilkinson, I. D., & Farrow, T. F. D. (2014, April). The neural basis of monitoring goal progress- an fMRI study. Poster presentation in the Society of Cognitive Neuroscience annual meeting, Boston, US. Abstract

Webb, T. L., Harkin, B., Sheeran, P., Conner, M. T., Prestwich, A., Kellar, I., Chang, B., & Benn, Y. (2013, July). Does prompting self-monitoring of physical activity engender behaviour change? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Paper presented at the 27th Conference of the European Health Psychology Society, Bordeaux, France. Abstract

Chang, B., Webb, T. L., Benn, Y., & Stride, C. (2013, June). How do people monitor their progress on personal goals? Paper presented at EASP Small Group Meeting on Motivational, affective, and cognitive sources of the knowledge formation process. Krakow, Poland. Abstract

Chang, B., Webb, T. L., & Benn, Y. (2013, July). Which Factors Predict How Often People Monitor their Personal Finances? Paper presented at the Motivation in Social Context Conference. Krakow, Poland. Abstract

Click here to see a Wordle of the project themes.