The Role of Knowledge Accessibility in Planning and in the Control of Action

To assist the individual’s pursuit of a goal effectively, implementation intentions need to specify relevant critical situations in the if-component and instrumental responses in the then-component (see also Gollwitzer, Wieber, Myers, & McCrea, 2009). Prior studies have generally observed that people can indeed identify and self-select suitable situations and responses (e.g., Adriaanse, de Ridder, & de Wit, 2009; Gollwitzer & Brandstatter, 1997). In fact, both experimenter-provided and self-generated implementation intentions have been shown to foster goal attainment effectively (Armitage, 2009). But how do people generate effective plans?

Individuals have to access goal-relevant knowledge before they can further process this information. Generally, psychological research shows wide agreement that knowledge accessibility is important for individuals’ cognition and behavior (overview by Wyer, 2008). As for the accessibility of goal-related knowledge, goal systems theory (Kruglanski et al., 2002) affords a helpful conceptual framework for understanding how pursuing a goal affects the accessibility and application of knowledge that is relevant to planning. This theory rests on a cognitive approach to motivation. Its proponents apply a network conceptualization that allows for dynamic and malleable modeling of the activation and permits application of cognitive content to motivation content. Within this “motivation-as-cognition” approach, goal systems are defined as “the mental representations of motivational networks composed of interconnected goals and means” (Kruglanski et al., 2002; p. 333). Given this connectedness of goals and means, the activation of a mental representation of a goal should also activate the mental representation of suitable means to pursue this goal. When this idea is applied to planning, it follows that when one is pursuing a goal (e.g., to prepare a healthy dinner), knowledge of possible means that is relevant to planning the when, where, and how of goal-striving becomes easily accessible (e.g., thinking of the salad in one’s fridge and of the tomatoes that one has to purchase on the way home).

Two properties of the interconnections are thus especially interesting for the activation of goal-relevant knowledge: structure and strength. As far as the structure of the interconnections are concerned, the number of means that are attached to a goal can vary. For one person, activating the physical fitness goal might activate only the means of going to the gym, but for another person it might activate a multitude of means (e.g., going to the gym, riding a bike to work, and taking the stairs). In addition to such interindividual differences, the number of means connected to a goal might also vary from one goal to the next. For instance, there might be numerous ways to pursue the goal of eating healthily (e.g., eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, drinking water rather than soft drinks) but only a few ways to pursue the goal of acquiring a driver’s license (i.e., taking the official test). Concerning the strength of the interconnections, one may expect the strength of the cognitive association between the goal and the means for achieving it to be stronger when the number of those means is relatively low than when it is relatively high.

Going to the gym will probably be more likely to come to one’s mind if it is the only means rather than one of several that are connected to one’s physical fitness goal. In summary, the structure and strength of the goal-means interconnections relating to a given goal seem relevant to planning because the activation of knowledge about potential means is a starting point for individual planning. Thus, the activation of the goal should ease the access to the knowledge relevant to the when and where (the if-component) and to the how (the then-component) of implementing that goal.

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