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Do You Have “Eyes on the Prize” or “Target Fixation”?

One leads to success, the other to disaster.

I once watched a grackle (a small bird) chase an osprey (large fish hawk) that had just caught a fish. Annoyed by the harassment, the osprey dropped the fish. The grackle immediately chased after the fish—its coveted prize.

But then the osprey dropped on the grackle.

Thus are the dangers of target fixation—focusing so intently on the goal of one’s desire that bad choices inevitably follow. Sometimes (as in the case of the grackle), the results can be deadly. More often, it ends in lost opportunities, wasted time, and goals never achieved.

Target fixation is different from the admonition to “keep your eyes on the prize”, that is, to not allow minor distractions or setbacks keep you from pursuing your true goal.

In a previous article, I discussed the most common mistake inexperienced problem-solvers make: Trying to solve a problem before they adequately understand the problem. Experts, on the other hand, tend to spend more time developing a full understanding of a problem before attempting a solution. As a result, experts spend less time overall solving problems and are more likely to reach a successful solution.

For example, chess experts visually scan empty squares between strategic pieces (i.e., places where pieces can move to attack or defend other pieces). To an expert, empty spaces weren’t irrelevant; instead, they were lines of possible strategic attack. It turns out that expert soccer players do the same thing: They watch the movements of players who do not have the ball but could receive it via a pass. Novices, on the other hand, tend to look only at the ball and the player who is controlling it.

After reading that article, several readers asked me the following question:

So, why is people's instinct to jump into solution mode without more fully understanding the problem?

Why we jump to conclusions

The bottom line of four decades of research on human problem solving is this: People tend to choose solution strategies that create states as similar as possible to their goal state. This “hill climbing” strategy can be very effective if reaching the goal is simple, requiring just a few steps. How do you open your locked office door? Well, if you have a key, you simply use it to unlock the door. That is the shortest path from your current state (locked door) to your goal state (unlocked door). But if you don’t have a key, more steps may be needed, and those steps may require your going away from your goal state in order to ultimately reach it. So you may need to get back in your car, drive back home, retrieve your key, drive back to the office, and THEN finally unlock the door.

The problem is that people are very reluctant to pursue paths that temporarily take them in the direction of states less similar to the goal. For this reason, difficult problems are problems that require pursuing paths that appear to take you farther from the goal or require generating subgoals that are not immediately recognized as belonging to the solution path. This is what makes solving Rubik’s cube to challenging. At several places in the solution path, it is necessary to move the cube in ways that seem to make the goal seem farther away. But unless you make those moves, you will never ultimately reach the final goal.

Think about kids learning to play hockey or soccer. They all want to "touch" the puck or the ball so they can make a quick score. They crowd around the puck or the ball, and end up trampling each other. The first team that learns to spread out and pass wins. But that requires moving away from the ball, and having a plan where everyone plays a role that eventually ends in a goal. No "get rich quick" strategy will work against an experienced team.

It's the same thing when people jump to conclusions rather than hearing all of the evidence. We want closure--to get to a state of satisfaction as quickly as possible. That overwhelms everything--including common sense.

The “pull” of anticipated success

All problem-solving and decision-making involves the brain's planning or executive areas (the frontal lobes) and the brain's reward system (striatum and other areas deeper in the brain). When the reward system is more active than the executive areas, people usually make rash decisions. In other words, the more we focus on the satisfaction we anticipate feeling when we reach our goal rather than on the actions needed to get there, the more likely we are to make quick and bad decisions.

Bottom line: The anticipated pleasure of success gets us motivated and keeps us motivated. But we need to let our rational plan dictate how we will get there.

Dr. Denise Cummins is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think (Cambridge, 2012).

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