Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

If you’re not in a group, you better have a plan.

Specific plans are helpful, particularly when you are alone.

Plan aheadMuch of your life is spent doing routine things. On weekdays, you have a set of actions you take out of habit to wake up, get ready to leave your house, go to work or school and so on through the day. You also have some strategies for helping you to remember things that vary from day to day. You may have a to-do list or an agenda. You might place little post-it notes around your home or office to remind you to do things.

But how do you make sure that you do things that are really rare? By definition, you have no routines for those actions.

A study by David Nickerson and Todd Rogers in the February, 2010 issue of Psychological Science examined this question by looking at voting behavior.

There is research by Peter Gollwitzer and his colleagues that it can often be helpful to envision a specific plan (which he calls an implementation intention) when you need to perform an action that is out of the ordinary. Voting can be a pain, for example. If election day is during the week (as it often is), you have to arrange your day to get to a polling station at a time when you can afford to wait if there is a line. That requires thinking carefully about your schedule for that day and choosing a time of day that makes sense to go.

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Do these plans actually help you?

VoteNickerson and Rogers built a study into calls made to nearly 300,000 voters in the Democratic Presidential Primary election in Pennsylvania 2008. They selected only registered voters who rarely vote in the primary elections. Some voters were just called and reminded to vote. A standard "Get out the vote" call. Some were called and asked to predict whether they thought they would vote in the upcoming primary. A third group was asked to think specifically about how they would get to the polls on election day in order to vote. That is, they had to form an implementation intention. Later, the voting records were checked to determine the proportion of people receiving each type of call who actually voted.

The results were interesting.

People who lived in a family with 2 or more registered voters in the house were completely unaffected by the type of call they received. They were just as likely to vote whether they got a call or not and the type of call they received did not matter.

The results were quite different for people who were the only registered voter in their home. These people were much more likely to vote if they were asked to form a specific plan than if they were just reminded to vote or asked to predict whether they would vote.

What does this mean? Obviously, performing actions that go beyond the ordinary is difficult. In this primary election, only about 45% of registered Democrats actually voted, so most people either were not interested or could not find a way to get to the polls.

If you live with a group, then it is easier for everyone in the group to talk about their plans. It is also easier get support from others to help you satisfy your goals. For example, all of you might go to the polls together.

When you are the only one responsible for an action, though, you don't have other people to discuss your plans with. You also don't have social support for carrying out an action. So, being forced to think through the details of a plan is particularly important when you are acting alone.

There are two important conclusions to draw from this research.

First, if you know you are going to have to do something out of the ordinary (like voting or perhaps starting a new exercise program), you should try to enlist a few others to help you out. It is easier to generate intentions and stick to them when you are in a group.

Second, if you can't enlist a group, then make sure you really think through the details of a plan to carry out an action. That detailed plan will help you to overcome the variety of obstacles that often keep you from succeeding when you have to go beyond the ordinary actions of the day.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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