Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Mental Energy and Physiological Energy

Energizing goals energizes the body too.

When we talk to other people about achieving goals, we often speak in terms that relate to energy. We think of ourselves as getting energized to get to work. Psychologists talk about the energy that is related to achieving goals as arousal.

Is this mental energy just a metaphor? That is, are these goals just energized in the mind, or does that energy translate to physiological energy in the rest of the body?

This question was explored in a paper in the February 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Timur Sevincer, Daniel Busatta, and Gabriele Oettingen.

In one study, they looked at a method that Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues have used many times in the past to study the arousal of goals. Their works shows that a good way to energize a goal is to do a mental contrast. First, think about the desired future that you want to achieve.Then, think about where you are right now related to that goal.  For people who believe the goal can be achieved, this mental contrasting is an effective way of energizing the goal. But, for people who believe that the goal is impossible to achieve, this kind of mental contrasting actually makes people less interested in achieving the goal. 

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In this study, the researchers linked this kind of mental energy to physiological energy using changes in systolic blood pressure. In one study, college students came to the lab and had a baseline blood pressure measurement. They also did a task where they squeezed a metal hand grip and the researchers measured how long they could hold the hand grip closed. This task is often used in psychology experiments as a measure of physical effort. 

After that, participants were told that they were going to write a fictitious graduate admissions essay. They rated how well they thought they would do in this task. That was a measure of their belief in whether they would succeed.

Next, some participants did a mental contrasting exercise in which they thought about an aspect of themselves like self-confidence and focused first on how writing the essay would make them feel in the future. Then, they thought about that aspect in themselves right now.  A second group thought only about the future. A third group focused on unrelated interactions with a teacher.

After these exercises, participants had a second measure of systolic blood pressure. They also squeezed the hand grip again. Participants did not actually write an essay.

Participants in the future and control conditions showed no particularly strong pattern of results.  Their systolic blood pressure was not strongly influenced by their thoughts, and there was no major change in their ability to squeeze the hand grip.

The participants in the contrasting condition showed an interesting pattern, though. When they thought the task was not achievable, their systolic blood pressure went down. When they thought it was highly achievable, then their systolic blood pressure went up. The same pattern was observed with the hand grip. Those who thought the task was not achievable held the grip closed for a shorter period of time than they had in the baseline condition, but those who thought it was achievable held it for a longer period of time. 

This study suggests that getting mentally energized to achieve a goal creates physiological energy. That energy is reflected both in a change in blood pressure as well as an increased ability to perform a physical task.

Perhaps it should not be so surprising that mental energy creates a physiological response. The brain controls bodily action, and many of our goals require physical reactions. In the modern era, though, a lot of our mental work is done without much physical activity, and so it is easier to believe that the goals engaged by the brain are contained primarily in the brain. 

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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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