Whack-a-Goal: How Goal Reversion Un – derlies Consumer Flip Flopping


According to recent work by Kurt Carlson (Georgetown) and colleagues (Meg Meloy—PSU and Liz Miller—UMass Amherst), consumers change their minds often when making choices between products that serve competing goals. “Consumers frequently face situations where they can’t get everything they want from the options available to them. As competing goals struggle for dominance, conflicts are likely, and consumers tend to flip-flop en route to making a decision,” write the authors.

For example, you’re at a restaurant and a piece of chocolate cake displayed under the counter is talking to you. But your slender-to-be self knows you should have fruit salad instead. Or maybe you are out shopping for a new car. One option is practical and has an interior that is better suited to your needs; the other has a more stylish exterior, putting the goal of practicality in conflict with the goal of flamboyance. In another common example, consider a choice between two pairs of shoes. One pair is more stylish but the other is more comfortable. In this situation, the choice forces a reconciliation of comfort and style goals.

In these common situations, consumers who find themselves torn between two goals are extremely susceptible to flip flopping, in part because they are very bad at trading the goals off. In a series of experiments, Carlson and colleagues found that goals initially ignored by consumers do not fade away, but will instead linger in the backs of our minds. In fact, during the time we try to ignore a conflicting goal, it gets stronger and eventually breaks through causing the consumer to flip. After this, the competing goal behaves the same way, getting stronger after it was supplanted, eventually breaking through causing a preference flop.


By examining the pattern of preferences during a choice process, Carlson and colleagues were able to show that such flip flopping was extremely common in situations where goals conflict. Specifically, Carlson found that a significant portion of consumers (~20%) flip-flopped during a their decision choice involving conflicting goals. This was significantly more than would be predicted by a model using consumers’ pure preference ratings, suggesting that this tendency to let goals fester and then break through creates unnecessary mental frustration during the choice process. Further, these consumers ‘flopped’ back to their original choice, even though they were not presented with any new attribute information that favored their original choice. This suggests that consumers’ original goals do remain active throughout the decision process, and can eventually overcome more recently adopted goals.

The bad news is that consumers who flip away from a short run hedonic goal (e.g., taste, flamboyance, style) for a longer run practical goal (e.g., health, usefulness, comfort) tend to flop back to the more hedonic goal with alarming regularity. The good news is that consumers who flip away from a long run practical goal tend to flop back to it at high rates as well. Thus, the key to ending on a long run practical goal resides at least part in ensuring that one sets that goal in motion at the outset. Fortunately, Carlson and colleagues observed that consumers exhibited goal reversion when making choices regarding restaurants, cars, and shoes. They also observed that this tendency was stronger when consumers were reverting to more hedonic goals (taste) than when reverting to more utilitarian goals (healthiness).


Carlson observed that those who exhibited high conflict were significantly more likely to flip-flop in their decision process. Further, they observed that goal reversion could be encouraged by external cues that increase the salience of consumers’ original goals. The findings have important implications for many consumer choices, including dieting. For example, most supermarkets force consumers to enter near the produce section. Thus, even if we aren’t planning to buy any fruits or vegetables, it would benefit us to pass through on our way to the snack aisle. Consumers watching their weight should remember that this could impact their decisions when they reach the snack aisle. Likewise, a consumer at a restaurant tempted with a desert menu would be benefited by avoiding it all together thereby initiating a healthy choice goal rather than browsing the menu and possibly initiating the eat-tasty goal. Additionally, publicly stating that one is watching what she/he eats may work particularly well because it more concretely activates the healthy choice as the primary goal. When it comes to controlling oneself at home, the obvious approach is to replace foods that can activate the goal to eat tasty (e.g., cookies and candy) with foods that activate the goal to eat healthy.


Our study provides a glimpse into why consumers feel so much angst when they encounter choices with conflicting goals. Namely, the goal that appears to have been initially ignored finds new energy on the back burner and reasserts itself at the next earliest opportunity. In short, important goals are hard to ignore because ignoring them just makes them stronger,” the authors conclude.

Kurt Carlson

Researcher at the Georgetown Institute for Consumer Research and Professor of Marketing, McDonough School of Business

Kurt Carlson is the Associate Dean at the Raymond A. Mason Business School. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin and his Ph.D. in marketing from Cornell University. Prior to joining William and Mary, Carlson was on the faculty of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University from 2001 to 2009 and the faculty of McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University from 2009-2017.

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