Controlling Actions by Goals and Implementation Intentions

In the psychology of action (e.g., Lewin, Dembo, Festinger, & Sears, 1944; Gollwitzer & Bargh, 1996), two phenomena are thought to be relevant to goal pursuit: goal-setting and goal-striving. They are governed by different principles. Goalsetting is concerned with the choice of a desired end state for which to strive (What is being pursued?); goal-striving is associated with moving toward the desired end state (How is the goal being pursued?). Goals are thereby defined as desired end states that people intend to attain and to which they commit themselves (Gollwitzer & Oettingen, 2012). For individuals to commit themselves firmly to a goal, they must perceive it as highly desirable and feasible. These assessments are based on an individual’s knowledge about a potential pursuit of the goal. Knowing that sunny weather has been forecast and having no commitments for the coming weekend, for example, one might judge a weekend trip to a nearby national park as both desirable and feasible and might consequently commit oneself to the goal of going on a weekend trip to that place.

Nonetheless, even when individuals have strongly pledged themselves to a goal, such commitment does not guarantee successful goal attainment. This fact is referred to as the intention-behavior gap (e.g., Sheeran, 2002). In a meta-analysis by Webb and Sheeran (2006), for instance, a moderate-to-large change (d = 0.66) in the strength of individuals’ intentions resulted in only a small-to-moderate change in the individuals’ behavior (d = 0.36). In considering why the transition of one’s intention into goal-directed actions might fail, researchers (e.g., Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006) have identified several typical problems that have to be overcome during goal-striving. People must start acting on a goal, persist or even intensify their efforts in the face of difficulties or obstacles, shield their goal from interferences or distractions, abandon ineffective means or even the goal itself if it becomes obviously unattainable, and economize on their limited resources to self-regulate their actions. Knowledge about the when, where, and how of striving toward a goal is necessary, but not sufficient, for successfully attaining it. Even when individuals know how to pursue a goal, they might struggle to turn their knowledge into goal- directed actions. Strategies that allow effective regulation of one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions during goal-striving are needed. One time- and cost-efficient strategy to promote individuals’ goal-striving is to devise implementation intentions for planning when, where, and how one intends to act (Gollwitzer, 1993, 1999, 2014 ; overview by Wieber, Thurmer, & Gollwitzer, 2015b) . In implementation intentions, people specify a well-suited or critical future situation and link an adaptive goal-directed response to it in an if-then format. For example, aa person intending to learn a new language might opt for one of the following implementation intentions: “If I am finished eating my Sunday morning breakfast, then I will work through one lecture of the language course on my computer,” or “If ‘New E-mail’ notifications pop up while I am working on the language course on my computer, then I will ignore them.”

What is so special about such simple if-then plans? Researchers studying the processes underlying the effects of implementation intentions have systematically tried to answer to this question. Essentially, implementation intentions are at the junction of controlled and automatic processes (e.g., Evans, 2008; Strack & Deutsch, 2004). The intentional formation of if-then plans typically emerges from deliberation on when, where, and how to act. By contrast, the implementation of goal- directed action in response to an existing, specified, critical situation entails features of automaticity (e.g., Bargh, 1994): Effects of implementation intentions have been observed to be immediate and efficient, and once the specified situation is encountered they come about without requiring extensive deliberation on how to respond (e.g., Aarts, Dijksterhuis, & Midden, 1999; Webb & Sheeran, 2007, 2008; Wieber & Sassenberg, 2006).

Indeed, empirical evidence suggests that forming implementation intentions in addition to mere goals leads to faster responses to critical situations (e.g., Parks- Stamm, Gollwitzer, & Oettingen, 2007) and improved performance in a secondary task without compromising the simultaneous performance in a primary task (i.e., speed-up effects are still evident under high cognitive load; e.g., Brandstatter, Lengfelder, & Gollwitzer, 2001). This research also suggests that there is no need for a further conscious intent to act in a critical moment. For instance, Bayer, Achtziger, Gollwitzer, and Moskowitz (2009) found that implementation intentions encouraged successful pursuit of a goal even when the critical cue was presented subliminally, that is, when it was not consciously recognized. Moreover, studies of the human brain have found evidence that implementation intentions change action control from slow top-down to fast bottom-up processes (e.g., Gilbert, Gollwitzer, Cohen, Oettingen, & Burgess, 2009; Schweiger Gallo, Keil, McCulloch, Rockstroh, & Gollwitzer, 2009; Hallam et al., 2015) . In summary, implementation intentions strategically automate the control of goal-directed actions, instantly and efficiently activating the action response linked to a critical situation when the individual enters it.

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