How Research Works: The Yale Goals Study

The more I work as a reference librarian, the more convinced I am that most people don’t have a good idea in their head about what the process of research looks like. Also, people have trouble telling the difference between something well researched and something not. So from time to time, I like to highlight articles that I’ve come across that do a good job explaining the process the researcher went through to get as close as possible to the truth.

I have previously posted about Clark Gable’s Undershirt and Easter Island.

The Yale Goals Study

Today’s post features an element that drives my friend Nancy Cleaveland crazy, using information because “I read it somewhere.” She even named her sock monkey Iris in honor of this frequent comment.

Oliver Burkeman and the Fast Company noticed that the Yale Goals Study was frequented cited in self-help materials, but that an official academic citation was never used. So they set out to find the study, but couldn’t….

https://www.fastcompany.com/3002763/why-setting-goals-could-wreck-your-life

For a follow up, check out the Yale University’s answer to the question. It also describes its efforts to prove or disprove the theory some of which is used in the article above, so of which isn’t.

What The Story Shows About Research

I especially appreciated:

  1. That they wanted to trace back a source.

This is one of the times when it’s important to back trace a reference. You don’t have to do this for every source you use, but the more you rely on it, the more work you should do tracing it down. References aren’t supposed to be, BUT CAN BE, a bit like playing telephone, especially when a direct quote isn’t used. Having an idea in your head you can easily grab an idea from someone else and cite it in a way they wouldn’t have. A couple of citations down the line and it can be established that someone means something that they never did or weren’t sure about or were postulating as a possibility. Even a quote can be taken out of context to shade its meaning closer to what you want. In this case a study, The Yale Study of Goals, wasn’t academically cited just passed along from one motivational speaker and/or writer to another.

2. Dig

They did a search themselves looking for both the study itself and for instances when the study was cited to trace it back.

3. Contacted Multiple People And/Or Groups

Branches of research and organizations can be very insular. Sometimes people strain to prove things that other people either already have or know about. Before you invest too much work into a topic, ASK! I can think of several times I’ve seen that happen in Laura research alone where someone had done the research and someone else came along and not knowing about the original research re-did the search. That is not always bad, sometimes you can pick up something they missed, but for basic facts it’s often a lot of unnecessary work that can they be applied to fresh subjects instead. Often even if you want to reconfirm the work it might give you locations of collections or information that you might not have thought to check so ask organizations and people first.

Sometimes an organization is just in a better position to search for information than any individual. In this case they turned to the Yale University Archivist who also involved the Yale Alumni Association. The association had access to members contact information which allowed them to quickly survey a good chunk of the class in question. They also were an organization the class members already had a relationship so they were more likely to respond to them. An individual could have done the same thing, but at the cost of a lot more research and likely a lower response rate.

4. And a Problem Analysis

They then took the idea that the non-existent survey was wrong and looked for information to support it. This is the weakest part of the article as they only give one example. Perhaps they offer more in the book? However, a single example, while illustrative, is hardly compelling and even if they didn’t take us through the full explanation of each listing a couple of more examples we could follow up on our own if we wanted to would have strengthened the piece.

Conclusion:

So let me say kudos to them for actually looking at a source and tracking it down. They did what the speakers who were building their careers on motivation should have done themselves. Although proving a negative is very difficult, this seems to pin down fairly conclusively that no such study, at least at that time and place, ever existed. The piece is much weaker in them proving that because the study didn’t exist that it was necessarily wrong in its conclusion. A further exploration of long term studies that DID exist and focused on goals would have had a lot to the strength of the piece.

Bonus: But why 1953?

There probably was a reason the person who told the story originally settled on 1953. However, putting a date on something always makes it seem real. I would bet that whenever it started the 1950s were far enough past that it worked with the story of checking later in life and it was probably in a year that ended with 3. People like round numbers and 30 years, 40 years would make it a nice figure.

Sarah S. Uthoff is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales striving to bring the History, Mystery, Magic and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation. Uthoff is a nationally known Laura Ingalls Wilder authority and has presented at five of the Wilder homesites, many conferences and numerous libraries, museums, and events around the Midwest. Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, and find her on FacebookTwitterGoogle+ LinkedIn, and Academia.edu. Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.

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Sarah Uthoff - Trundlebed Tales

Sarah S. Uthoff is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales striving to bring the History, Mystery, Magic and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation. Uthoff is a nationally known Laura Ingalls Wilder authority and has presented at five of the Wilder homesites, many conferences and numerous libraries, museums, and events around the Midwest. Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, and find her on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and Academia.edu. Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.

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