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Uh Oh, Harvard Goal Study Is An “Urban Legend”


A short piece I’ve had students read as part of a lesson on the importance of setting goals is about a supposed Harvard study that describes how much more successful people are who write down their goals as opposed to those who only think about them. Even though that lesson is cited countless times if you search the Web, I just discovered that it’s fake.

However, there is another study — one that was actually done recently — that did arrive at similar conclusions. It was done by Gail Matthews, a clinical psychologist at Dominican University in California. So I’ll be using this summary of that study in the place of the fake one.

The Russian proverb, “Trust, but verify” (which really is a Russian proverb) apparently holds true for Internet research as well as nuclear weapon limitation talks.

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. Don’t feel bad, Larry. I number of years ago I wrote “Great Debates in American History” for Prentice Hall. I included a “debate” on how to treat the land. Included passages from Teddy Roosevelt and Chief Seattle. I found out later that Chief Seattle’s much quoted letter was written by a screenwriter in 1971 and had found it’s way into loads of texts. … Hey, it sure made the point I wanted for the debate.
    See unit 5

  2. It’s funny how people feel the need to present their ideas as someone else’s just to gain the legitimacy they deserve. I guess we as people need to do a better job really listening, and not just accepting or rejecting based on the supposed source.

  3. There is a larger question here…

    The first one was fake, but the other one that you refer to here doesn’t seem to have all the hallmarks of “good” research. Who was the author? What are his qualifications? How was the study designed (specifically, not generally as reported)? Why was there such a larger number of women than men in the sample? etc etc etc…

    I’m not saying that the study wasn’t done, but I’d like to see the full report to judge the science before I accept it’s conclusions.


  4. I always have attributed the “Trust but verify” quote to President Regan. I find that very funny that he used a Russian proverb as a rationale for his nuclear arms policy.

    I’ll go check out your student motivation book.

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