Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Those Pesky Unconscious Goals

You can be distracted by unconscious desires

Have you ever had one of those days where you just find it hard to get anything done?  You sit at your desk trying to work, and your mind keeps wandering off.  Eventually, you may just give up and do something else for a while.

 There are many reasons why this might happen, of course.  If you don’t get enough sleep, it can be hard to concentrate.  Stress can make it hard to keep yourself focused.  Some new research by Hans Marien, Ruud Custers, Ran Hassin, and Henk Aarts published in the September, 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that another reason why you might be having trouble getting work done is that you might have another goal that you subconsciously want to achieve.

 Psychologists have known for a long time that it is possible to get you interested in pursuing a goal without being aware that the goal is influencing you.  For example, research on goal contagion (originally done by some of the authors of this paper) shows that people will unconsciously adopt the goals that people around them are pursuing.  In experiments, people can be nudged to pursue a goal by flashing words at them that are related to a goal they have.

 In these studies, the researchers were interested in whether activating a goal without conscious awareness would interfere with tasks that people were consciously trying to pursue. 

 In one experiment, participants were shown a string of letters (like aaaaAaaaa) and were asked to identify whether any of the letters were capital letters.  For a brief period while participants looked at the letters, they were replaced with words.  The flash was too brief for people to be consciously aware of what they saw.  For some participants, the words were related to the goal of socializing.  For the rest of the participants, the words were not related to any particular goal. 

 After this priming task, participants did an interesting memory test.  They were shown a string of four different letters (say XRBQ) and then a probe letter (T) and were asked whether the probe letter was in the string of letters they had just seen.  (In this example, the answer would be ‘no.’)  People did a long sequence of these trials.

 Now, consider the following sequence of trials.

 XRBQ           Target—B  (Answer: Yes)

VRMS           Target—T  (Answer:  No)

TBLX            Target—R  (Answer:  No)

 For this last trial, the letter R that is part of the probe is not part of the most recent string of letters, so the answer is no.  Notice, though, that the letter R was part of the previous two strings.  So, in order to answer this question correctly, the participant has make sure that they base their response just on the last set of letters they saw.  That is a somewhat difficult task to do.

 The researchers measured the amount of time it took people to make responses like this (relative to easier trials where the target letter had not been seen for a while).  People who were primed to pursue the goal of being social took much longer to respond to these difficult memory trials than people who were not primed to pursue a goal.  This finding suggests that when you are unconsciously focused on achieving a goal, it interferes with your ability to do difficult tasks.

 Several other studies in this series clarified the results.  One study demonstrated that the effect of unconsciously priming a goal was similar to the effect of consciously asking people to think about a goal that they have.  Another study found that this effect was obtained, even when people were told that if they performed well on the memory test that they would be eligible for a large payment.  So, it was not the case that the unconscious goal was just making the memory task uninteresting.

 There are many things in your world that can serve to activate goals.  In the modern world, for example, people are often drawn to check their email and text messages frequently.  These goals can be made stronger by the badges on email programs that alert you that new messages have arrived.  These unconsciously activated goals can sap your performance. 

 So, what can you do?

 Goals often require some trigger in the environment to be activated.  If you find that you get distracted at work often, try to minimize the sources of distraction in your work space.  Keep your email program closed except when you are checking your email.  Don’t open up social networking sites when you are trying to get work done.  Keep your smart phone off.  In this way, you can protect the main goals you are trying to achieve from the goals that may get activated unconsciously.

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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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