More Effective Goal Intentions: Think Width and Consistency

Avoiding temptations with well-framed goals.

Posted Nov 28, 2010

How can we more effectively avoid short-term temptations to achieve long-term goals? Two leading researchers argue that framing our goals with "width" and "consistency" makes a big difference.

Ayelet Fishbach (University of Chicago) and Benjamin Converse (University of Virginia) argue that the necessary first step to overcoming temptation is to identify a conflict between potential temptations and higher-order (often longer-term) goals. Of course, the notion of a temptation is always relative to current goals. Temptation in this regard is a moving target. What was a temptation today can be a goal tomorrow. The key first step is to actually recognize competing intentions that serve to undermine current goal pursuit. These are the temptations that we need to use self-control, along with other strategies (e.g., implementation intentions), to overcome.

One of the problems with temptations is that they can seem relatively harmless. It seems so reasonable and seductive to conclude that not running "just today" won't harm our long-term health goals, and that eating that jelly donut won't ruin our weight-loss goal. We all know this type of thinking from personal experience, and I've written about this before from the perspective of intransitive preference structures

Fishbach and Converse offer up two perspective-taking strategies that facilitate the identification of conflict with these temptations (what they call epsilon-cost temptations - those single instances of consumption that would have negative consequences and are pervasive in our lives). In short, a series of studies conducted by Fishbach and her colleagues have underscored the importance of "width" and "consistency" in terms of framing competing action intentions.

Width means framing an action opportunity in relation to future opportunities. If we consider an action opportunity in isolation, then the present moment seems special or unique. As such, identifying a conflict with long-term goals is less likely. It leads to the impression that "this one jelly donut won't undermine my diet" sort of thing. Expanding our frame of reference to include other opportunities to act is more likely to make the potential for conflict salient. If we think, "yes, a jelly donut this morning won't kill me, but tomorrow and the day after I'll be in the same situation," we're more likely to see how this apparently single opportunity for action isn't unique or potentially harmless at all. This is similar to what I've presented before in relation to the planning fallacy. Too often we think of action as singular events and fail to take into account distributed information about similar past events. 

Although width is a necessary condition for helping to identify competing actions as temptations that may undermine our goals, it is not sufficient. In addition, Fishbach and Converse note that conflict identification also requires consistency. We must expect that the decision we make now will play out in the future. Again, action opportunities are not unique, and our decisions must carry with them the potential for consistency. We'll act the same way in the future. When we take a decision, we must see in it the potential for setting a precedent: Jelly donut today, jelly donut tomorrow; not run today, not run tomorrow.

How we frame the many competing action intentions that arise throughout our day is very important. Fishbach and Converse offer up some specific cognitive strategies for success both in framing current choices in relation to future opportunities (width) and in the potential for our choice today to set a precedent for tomorrow (consistency).

At its heart, I also think this speaks very directly to taking an honest and agentic perspective on our lives. Self-deception is part of the problem of procrastination. Too often we fail to frame our action opportunities in relation to the future opportunities or in relation to future choices because we don't want to face up to the agency that our lives demand. It's easier to "give in to feel good" and reduce the dissonance by forgetting our long-term goals (at least for the moment). 

Does this mean we never eat a jelly donut or never miss a workout? Absolutely not! There are unique opportunities that present exceptions and don't create goal-defeating precedents in our lives. For example, a family visit with distant relatives may include treats not usually part of our diet. A particularly beautiful winter day may be embraced with a "carpe diem" attitude of a day on the slopes or trails. Life is for living, but agentic choice involves honest assessment of width and consistency in our decision making.

How will you frame your goals today? An important aspect of successful goal pursuit is to think past "today" both in terms of the nature of the opportunity for action and the precedent you may be setting with your decisions. It's seductive to make the excuse that today is unique and tomorrow I won't "give in" again.

Blogger's Note:
If you're seriously interested in understanding self-regulation, then I highly recommend the second edition of the Handbook of Self-Regulation: Research, Theory and Application edited by Kathleen Vohs and Roy Baumeister (2011, New York: The Guildford Press). This blog post was based on content taken from Chapter 13: "Identifying and Battling Temptation" by Ayelet Fishbach (University of Chicago) and Benjamin Converse (University of Virginia).