Do You Have Progress Bias?

By Ryan Halvorson

Sometimes, we think we put out more effort than we actually do.


Toward the end of last year, several research scientists from the Mays Business School at Texas A&M got together to talk about goal-setting. Specifically, they wanted to learn about consumers and their tactics to achieve a variety of goals, like saving for a big purchase or losing weight. The scientists also wanted to know how accurately people monitor and perceive progress.


They were dismayed at what they found.


Across the scope of the seven different studies they facilitated, the researchers found that–for the most part–people give too much weight to their efforts and not enough to their backslides. This is known as progress bias. For example, some people believe that choosing not to eat a donut helps more for weight loss than eating a donut hurts it. Reading this, you might think, “duh,” but that’s the response they got when they put people to the test.


In one particular study, more than 100 college students were encouraged to set a goal of burning 70 calories, and if they were successful they’d be given a $5 reward. The students were then given two tasks: burn 50 calories via step-up exercise and eat a 50-calorie protein bar. One group of students was told exactly how many calories they burned and consumed, while a second group was told that they had not yet achieved their 70-calorie goal. Both groups were questioned about how many calories were required to burn before they were successful. Of course, those who were made aware that they had broken even accurately deduced that they still needed to burn 70 calories. The second group, on average, believed that they had only 50 calories left to go before they could earn the reward, leaving them 20 calories short. The scientists asked them to exercise again until each student believed they had burned enough calories. Almost everyone in the first group claimed the $5 reward. The second group left empty-handed.


While this was a one-time, standalone study, imagine the misperceptions–and disappointments due to lack of progress–that could build over time among that second group.


Maybe this scenario might even hit close to home for you.


Are you disappointed by your (lack of) body change results? Perhaps you’re the type that thinks that avoiding the donut helps your progress more than eating it hurts. It definitely seems to take more effort to not eat it so perhaps psychologically it’s a more of a victory to abstain than eating it is a big defeat. Or maybe you give more weight to your daily workout than you do to the food choices you make throughout your day.


If you relate to any of this, it’s time to ask yourself this very important question: Is your relationship with your progress like Paula Abdul’s relationship with MC Scat Cat in the prolific video, “Opposites Attract?” Are you in a constant battle between taking two steps forward and two steps back?


I’m not a big fan of detailing the minutiae–like counting every calorie I expend or consume. But I do think that if you have not seen the (realistic) results you desire, perhaps it’s time to do pay a bit more attention to your efforts so that you can either align them to your expectations or augment them to see improvement.


Here are some tips you can use to minimize progress bias:


  1. Your workout should not be your primary calorie management system. Why? It’s not an efficient means of burning them. For example, I can put away four slices of pizza in less than 10 minutes. The average slice is roughly 285 calories, times four slices equals 1,140 calories. According to, I’d need to run at a good clip for at least 85 minutes to burn that many calories. It’d probably be a lot easier to eat something else, wouldn’t it?


  1. Eat until you feel satisfied, not until you’re so stuffed you’ve got to unbutton your pants. I know, I know, mama always told you to clean your plate. But considering how big the average portion sizes are these days, I’d politely ask mama to put some of that food into a Tupperware to save for later.


  1. Treat yo’self and move on. Too many people have that, “Well, I had one piece of chocolate, which completely blows my eating plan so I guess I might as well get after the whole bag,” mentality. One piece of chocolate isn’t going to kill your progress. As some famous person said, “We are what we repeatedly do, not what we do every once in a while.” I added that list bit.


  1. Be here now. If you think that happiness is some state of future being that you’ll achieve when you get abs or weigh a certain amount, I’m fairly certain that happiness will always evade you. Enjoy the process of getting stronger, breathing fully and moving your body. After all, the only place you can ever be is right here, right now. Right?


  1. Set in-workout goals. Doing the same thing over and over again will get you the same results. And those results will diminish over time because the body will adapt to your efforts. During your workouts, aim to progress in some way. Maybe you might try to up the weight you lift or add more repetitions. Or, if you’re a runner, try to cut down on your 1-mile time, for example. Progress requires a combination of consistency and (safely) pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone. You’ll never learn to play “Highway to Heaven” if you only ever practice “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”