Goal adjustment capacities and health: a meta-analysis

  • M. Barlow
  • C. Wrosch
  • J. McGrath


Background: Individuals’ capacities to disengage from unattainable goals and to reengage in alternative goals have been proposed to protect psychological and physical health (Wrosch et al., 2013). This meta-analysis investigated the magnitude of effects of goal adjustment capacities on health outcomes across the extant literature. Method: Thirty-three independent samples (k = 38; effect sizes = 222) were comprehensively reviewed following an electronic database search. Articles were coded for sample demographics (age, sex, clinical sample), study characteristics (sample size, quality, design), and goal adjustment (disengagement, reengagement). Fisher’s Z’ was calculated as the common effect size. Health outcomes included chronic illness, biomarkers, sleep, physical activity, depression, and affect. Findings: Greater goal disengagement was linked to better psychological (Z’ = .07) and physical health (Z’ = .03), particularly negative psychological outcomes (Z’ = .11), and illness indicators (Z’ = .06). In contrast, while higher levels of goal reengagement were also associated with greater psychological (Z’ = .17) and physical health (Z’ = .07), effects were largest with positive psychological outcomes (Z’ = .24), illness indicators (Z’ = .07), and health-relevant processes (Z’ = .08). Among depression risk samples, goal disengagement was linked to higher depressive symptoms (Z’ = -.04); inversely, reengagement was linked to lower depressive symptoms (Z’ = .21). Discussion: Meta-analytic findings support the proposed mechanisms of goal disengagement and reengagement by demonstrating their protective effects on psychological and physical health. Further, these findings are aligned with theories of evolutionary psychiatry such that depressive mood could plausibly trigger goal disengagement (Nesse, 1999).
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