Attributions regarding unmet goals after treatment

After searching for a while, and finding not that much about goals in the peer-reviewed pain management literature, it’s nice to have an article that specifically discussed goals and the effect of not meeting goals on participants. This article by Guck and colleagues from the University of Nebraska, examines how a group of participants in a pain management programme view their achievement of goals – do they blame themselves, or external factors for their ‘lapse’ or ‘relapse’.
It’s interesting that this piece of research is based around the concepts of relapse prevention, because one of the main reasons for considering the place of goal-setting is to ensure participants make changes in their lives that matter to them – and retain those changes over time. So relapse prevention theory will have much to add for therapists wanting to help their clients stick with the ‘programme’. I’m not sure that many therapists would have really considered this body of knowledge in relation to physical exercise or using coping skills, because much of the theory is directly related to smoking cessation, dietary change or alcohol abstinence.

Anyway, onto the research.
In this study 100 particpants from 263 people who entered an interdisciplinary programme over a five-year period were asked to participate. Of the original 263, 30 failed to complete the programme, and of the remaining people, 100 provided complete information.

From the description, the programme sounds very similar generic and consisted of a four-week programme of exercise, medication review, active coping strategies and other issues such as work, family and social issues were also addressed in both individual and group sessions.

In the final week of the programme, relapse prevention sessions were held, covering high risk situations, and how to reduce the likelihood of the rule violation effect.

Interestingly, the group developed their goals for after the programme at the time of this discussion – in full awareness of the role of ‘slips’ and ‘lapses’. Participants develop between 4 – 6 goals, and staff assisted them to ensure goals met the ‘SMART’ goal schema. The goals were to be achieved in the next six months.

Six months after discharge from the programme, participants were contacted with a copy of their goals list, and were asked to identify whether they had met the goal, and for each unmet goal, to record on four attributional rating scales, the reason for not doing so. The attributional scales were 1 – 7 likert-type scales, with ‘internal’ to ‘external’, ‘stable’ to ‘unstable’, ‘gobal’ to ‘specific’ and ‘uncontrollable’ to ‘controllable’ factors as the anchors.

Results – Overall, the 100 participants identified 487 goals they intended to meet – 322 of these goals were recorded as met, while 165 goals were not. 46 of the 100 participants met most of their goals, while 16 failed to meet more than 2/3 of their goals. Chi-squared analysis indicated that more goals than not were met in most of the goals categories – except for work.

The causes for not meeting work and social activity goals were attributed to external rather than internal factors more often than were causes for not meeting coping skills, medication change, or exercise goals. Work goals were more often to be thought to be uncontrollable.

So, it seems that goals that were set during this programme by and large were met – except in the two areas that depend a lot on other people (social and work). And the attributions that people made as to why these goals were met or not met differed depending on the type of goal. This suggests that it’s not helpful to use the same relapse prevention model for some of the goals – that is, people do tend to believe that when they can’t manage work or social goals, it’s about external factors, uncontrollable factors, and global factors that are stable.

This makes it very difficult for people to reconsider how to cope with these demands, and from other research in relapse prevention, makes it more likely for them to feel there is nothing they can do to change the situation, and reduce the likelihood they will attempt again.

The researchers in this study suggest that people who need to set goals in social and work areas need to be taught how to cope with factors that affect work and social goals that are external and uncontrollable – unfortunately, as many pain management programmes don’t even consider return to work as a goal, and certainly don’t seem to break that goal into manageable ‘chunks’, this may remain a concern within New Zealand at least.

Once again I’m left with the impression that developing pain management skills and goals to help people return to work despite chronic pain is different from and more complex than simply helping people develop generic pain management skills. The workplace is different from the home – and goals made for using pain coping strategies, exercise and medication at home seem to be much more easily achieved than those about using them at work. Food for thought: perhaps pain management at work is a specialised area for pain management, and not simply the same as ‘any old pain management’?

Gluck, T.P., Willcockson, J.C., Schmidt, R.L., Criscuolo, C.M. (2008). Attributions regarding unmet treatment goals after interdisciplinary chronic pain rehabilitation. Clinical Journal of Pain, 24(5), 415-420.

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