Harvard study? Man down pub, more like…

by Viv on January 21, 2008

It seems that in its constant desire to be taken seriously by people ‘in the business’, training professionals have been telling a few porkie pies about the scientific basis of their stories. Early in a new year, it was surely only a matter of time before the old chesnut about goal setting in Harvard was used…step forward Rob Yeung in January’s Accountancy magazine.

Unfortunately it’s an urban myth – whenever somebody says “an unnamed Harvard study” I’d give it the same credibility as “a man down the pub said…”

So here’s how the story goes: back in the 1950s researchers asked a class at Harvard how many of them set themselves goals. A few did and 3% actually went to the trouble of writing their goals down. 30 years later when the same class was surveyed, these 3% were found to have amassed 97% of the net wealth of the class taken as a whole. Therefore goal setting and writing them down is a good thing.

Whilst I have no issue with the conclusion, I have lots of issues with the story – there was never any such study. It’s all a big fib.

If someone can show me evidence that this study actually occurred and its findings are genuine, I will happily eat my hat – I have spent time looking into this and there is no trace of it. In the meantime it pains me that so many trainers (and I’m not immune from this myself) hear stories like this, take them at face value and then masquerade them as fact.

If as trainers we have the new year’s resolution to build our credibility within our businesses, may I suggest that we make sure we have our facts straight first.

[to make me look very hypocritical, please post your evidence here…]

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Dave January 29, 2008 at 9:52 pm

I came across your blog entry while searching for the exact information you wrote about. While out running today I came up with a short list of training myths and legends like this. I thought I’d write something on my blog complaining about how folks like us, in the personal development field, have a tendency to latch onto such stories because they support the perceived wisdom. While the wisdom may be true, I fear the sources are often spurious. Such non-critical acceptance is shameful.
If I do turn up anything, I’ll let you know. I doubt you’ll be eating your hat.

Oh…the other items on my list?
The story of the bamboo
Communication is 93% non-verbal
Harvard Goal Setting study

What got me started is reading Tony Robbins’ book Awaken the Giant Within where he says that
1% improvement per month in 5 areas adds up to 60% improvement. (this isn’t urban legend, it’s just bad math.)

I’m sure there are others. I’ll add them to my list.


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