Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Goal Conflict Helps You See Both Sides of an Issue

Conflicting goals reduces confirmation bias.

One of the most persistent findings in psychology is confirmation bias.  When we have a belief about something in the world, we tend to seek out information that will confirm that belief.  For example, if you meet a new person, and you believe that they are an extravert, you might focus on finding out information consistent with that belief (like whether they enjoy attending big parties and meeting new people) rather than information inconsistent with that belief (like whether they enjoy time alone or like to stick with the same close circle of friends). 

An interesting paper by Tali Kleiman and Ran Hassin in the September, 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that people might be more prone to consider two sides of an issue when they are experiencing a goal conflict. 

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Goals drive our behavior. One thing that makes it difficult to achieve our goals, though, is that sometimes they conflict.  For example, a student might want to study in order to get a good grade on an upcoming exam, but might also want to go out with friends to have a good time.  When it is not possible to do both, the goals are in conflict. 

Kleiman and Hassin suggest that when goals conflict, it puts people in a mindset that forces them to consider two sides of issues, because resolving the goal conflict requires that people consider the strengths and weaknesses of the opportunities before them.  Interestingly, goals can conflict even when people are not consciously aware of the conflict.

To test this possibility, participants were brought to the lab to do what they were told were two unrelated studies.  First, they did a lexical decision task.  In this task, they see strings of letter and have to respond whether they form a word.  If they saw the letters BROGI, they would respond that it was not a word.  If they saw the letters PARTY, they would respond that it was a word.  One group saw words that referred to both an academic goal (like CLASS and STUDY) and a social goal (like PARTY and MOVIE).  This condition created an unconscious goal conflict.  A second group saw words that were not consistently related to any goals.

After doing this lexical decision task, participants were told that they could ask a series of questions to someone to find out whether he was an extravert.  They were given a list of 25 possible questions and were asked to pick 12. Ten of the questions would ask for information that would confirm that the person was an extravert.  Ten of the questions would ask for information that would suggest the person was an introvert.  The remaining questions were unrelated to extraversion. 

People in the control condition chose far more questions relating to extraversion than introversion.  The people who were given the goal conflict asked about the same number of extraversion and introversion questions.  This result suggests that people primed with a goal conflict were not influenced by confirmation bias as strongly as those given no goal conflict.

A second study primed people with words that were opposites rather than just goal conflict, and found that opposites still lead to a confirmation bias.  A third study found that when people were primed with two unrelated goals that do not conflict directly, they still exhibit confirmation bias.  Each of these studies also replicated the finding that goal conflict reduces confirmation bias.

Putting these results together, the motivational system influences both actions and thinking.  Clearly, having an active goal pushes you to act in ways that are consistent with the goal. An active goal also pushes people to think about information that is related to that goal.  But, when goals compete, it pushes people to think in ways that will help them to resolve conflicts.  Reducing confirmation bias is one way to help resolve those conflicts. 

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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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