Eyes on the Prize: The Preference to Invest Resources in Goals Over Means

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Abstract

Goal systems are hierarchical, often requiring people to invest resources vertically—both in lower-order means and higher-order goals. For example, a college student who wants to take a particular class (a goal) might first have to take a prerequisite (the means). We investigated how the hierarchical configuration of goals and means affects preferences for vertical resource allocation. Specifically, we found that within goal–means dyads, people preferred to shift resources toward goals (i.e., invest less in means and more in goals) and further invested more resources in items framed as goals (versus means; Studies 1–2). The preference to shift resources toward goals was moderated by the presence of a goal–means hierarchy within the dyad (Study 3) and mediated by the perception that investing resources in the goal was a more direct investment in goal attainment (Study 4). Moreover, people chose to reduce costs associated with means (versus goals; Study 5) and were happier when costs associated with means (versus goals) were eliminated (Study 6). These studies demonstrate that the aversion to investing resources in means can result in non-normative decision making in the course of goal pursuit.

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