Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Stopping Unwanted Behaviors

New research on the interplay between goals and temptations?

We are hitting that time in January when many people who made New Year’s resolutions are discovering that it is hard to keep them. In another few weeks, most people who resolved to change their behavior will find that they have failed and are back to their old habits.

One difficulty with changing behavior is that you have to stop doing an undesired behavior, and ultimately replace it with one or more desired behaviors. As I discuss in Smart Change, your actions are governed by two brain networks that can be called the Go System and the Stop System. The Go System engages goals and promotes action. The Stop System inhibits behaviors that the Go System has begun to execute. Your ability to stop a behavior successfully, then, depends on two factors: how strongly the Go System is engaged and how effectively the Stop System can inhibit an action.

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Psychologists have developed a number of laboratory tasks that can be used to study the Go and Stop systems in action. One interesting task was used in a paper in the December, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Julie Bugg and Michael Scullin. This task is called the Prospective Memory task. Participants are told that they will see a number of strings of letters (like DUCK or DCUK) and they will have to respond whether the letters form a word by pressing buttons on a computer keyboard. This task is called a Lexical Decision task. However, participants are also told that there are two special target words (say, CORN and DANCER). If they see one of the target words, they should press a third button to indicate they saw the target. 

After doing that task for 80 trials, participants are then told that they will continue to do a lexical decision task, but the target task is now over, so they should only respond whether the letters they see form a word. Even if one of the target words from the first part of the study appears again, they should not press the special key. They key measure in this study is whether participants mistakenly press the special button when they see one of the words that had been a target in the first part of the study.

Previous research with this task suggests that the more times people see the target words in the first part of the task, the more likely that they will be to mistakenly continue to press the button in the second part of the task. The idea is that when you see the words many times in the first part of the task, it activates the Go System more strongly, and that makes it harder for the Stop System to overcome the temptation to press the key in the second part of the task.

In this latest paper, though, the researchers explored an interesting case. Some participants saw target words 4 times in the first part of the study. Other participants never saw target words in the first part of the study. In the second part of the study, all participants saw words that had been targets 10 times over 260 trials. Surprisingly, 56% of the participants who never saw targets in the first part of the study mistakenly pressed the target button at least once, but none of the participants who saw the target words 4 times in the first part of the study mistakenly pressed the target button.

What is going on here?

The first part of the study creates the goal to respond to the target words. When people see those target words 4 times in the first part of the study the Go System recognizes that the goal has been achieved, and so its activation is dampened in the second part of the study. When people never see the target words in the first part of the study, the Go System remains active in the second part of the study, which makes it harder for the Stop System to completely overcome the desire to act. 

As a demonstration of this point, another study in this paper repeated this study. This time, participants were once again focused on two target words in the first part of the study. This time, 4 targets appeared in the first part of the study, but participants saw only one of the two target words (so half of the participants saw only CORN and the other half saw only DANCER). In the second part of the study, participants were much more likely to mistakenly press the special button when they saw the target that had not appeared in the first part of the study than when they saw the target that had appeared.

Why does this matter?

When you try to change your behavior, you probably focus most on stopping the undesired behaviors. It may be even more important to find ways to dampen the activity of the Go System to make the undesired behaviors easier to overcome. One way to do that can be to perform the undesired behavior a little in order to make the Go System believe that it has achieved its goal rather than avoiding the undesired behavior altogether.

Obviously, there is a gap between these simple laboratory studies and the real world. So, there needs to be more research that helps to translate these intriguing findings into specific recommendations. 

And if you are still trying to make changes in the new year, Good Luck!

And on Facebook and on Google+.

Check out my new book Smart Change.

And my books Smart Thinking and Habits of Leadership

And coming in January, 2014,

Listen to my new radio show on KUT radio in Austin Two Guys on Your Head and follow 2GoYH on Twitter.

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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