Strategic Use of Goal-Relevant Knowledge with MCII

The use of goal intentions to guide action is aided by the coactivation of means associated with a goal. However, identifying and forming effective if-then plans might vary in difficulty, depending on the individual, the situation, and the specific goal. It may well be that neither the automatic activation of goal-related knowledge nor the spontaneous acquisition and use of incidentally presented goal-relevant information is enough to guide individuals’ actions successfully when pursuing the goal is difficult (e.g., when that pursuit is cognitively or motivationally demanding). A goal can be difficult for reasons related to the individual, such as internal obstacles (e.g., ego control or procrastination; see Gollwitzer, Bayer, & McCulloch, 2005; Wieber & Gollwitzer, 2010, in press). Or it may be difficult because of the situation, that is, because of external obstacles (e.g., distractions; see Wieber, von Suchodoletz, Heikamp, Trommsdorff, & Gollwitzer, 2011) . Whatever the case, individuals must carefully select the action they include in the if- and then- components of their implementation intentions. Depending on the goal at hand and on the existing ideas about goals and means, individuals might either narrow their focus to fewer situations and responses or extend the range of situations and responses they take into account when pursuing their goal. If people experience problems with sticking to a healthy diet when watching TV in the evening, they might want to address this situation specifically. Or when people experience problems with recognizing opportunities to exercise, they might want to expand the situations and means connected to their physical fitness goal.

A systematic guide to planning would be helpful for such challenging goal pursuit, and that guide exists—the preparation of if-then planning by means of mental contrasting (e.g., Oettingen et al., 2009; Oettingen, Pak, & Schnetter, 2001; for summaries see Oettingen, 2012, 2014). Mental contrasting brings individuals to actively search through their goal-relevant knowledge and select or even derive critical situations and suitable responses. In the application of the strategy, individuals are asked to formulate a personal wish, to imagine positive future outcomes of realizing that wish, and to mentally contrast these outcomes with current potential obstacles to their goal-striving. Mental contrasting thereby increases the accessibility of both a positive future vision and the current reality, instilling a sense that action is necessary. Moreover, mental contrasting is thought to activate relevant expectations that allow for an adjustment of personal goal commitment (a person’s attachment to a goal or the decisiveness to reach it; Locke, Latham, & Erez, 1988). If the expectation of reaching the desired outcome is high, commitment is strengthened by mental contrasting; if it is low and effort might be in vain, commitment is weakened and individuals disengage.

In the next step, MCII guides individuals in using this knowledge of potential obstacles and in detecting instrumental responses to each of them. Corroborating the effectiveness of combining mental contrasting and implementation intentions, one study found that MCII participants reported greater success at reducing their unhealthy snacking consumption than did participants who used either only mental contrasting or only implementation intentions (Study 2 in Adriaanse et al., 2010). According to this line of thought, MCII is likeliest to contribute to one’s goal attainment when the strategic search for one’s goal-relevant knowledge and planning can make a difference. MCII is less likely to do so when one’s environment prompts the when, where, and how of goal-directed actions to begin with.

One study by Sailer et al. (2015) addresses this argument. The authors ran an MCII intervention study on physical exercise in a clinical context. Previous research had indicated that regular exercise can have positive effects on both the physical and mental health of persons with schizophrenia. However, shortcomings in cognition, perception, affect, and volition make it especially difficult for people with schizophrenia to plan a behavior and follow through on it. As a result, studies that had incorporated exercise reported poor attendance and high drop-out rates, indicating that schizophrenic patients were not able to overcome the manifold barriers to physical activity. Sailer et al. therefore tested whether MCII helps convert schizophrenic individuals’ exercise intentions into behavior while taking into account the supportiveness of the situational context.

The patients diagnosed with a schizophrenic spectrum disorder lived in either an autonomy-focused setting (a self-supply ward with daytime care by nurses, medical doctors, and psychologists) or a highly structured setting (a ward providing intense therapy to activate patients and affording continuous availability of psychiatric care). Whereas participants in the autonomy-focused setting had to manage attending the exercise groups on their own, those in the highly structured setting were actively reminded and invited to each exercise session. The authors predicted that engaging in MCII would help individuals attain their exercise goals in the autonomy- focused setting (in which each search and application of goal-relevant knowledge depended on the patients themselves) but not in the highly structured setting (in which the environment made the relevant information available in order to prompt the goal-directed actions). To test this prediction, participants who agreed to participate in the study were randomly assigned to an information-plus-goal-intention condition (control group) or an information-plus-MCII condition (MCII group). Patients in the control group read a nonfiction text on the benefits of physical activity and on potential obstacles for which one must prepare (e.g., motivational problems and tiredness). They then set the goal to attend jogging sessions and wrote it down. Patients in the MCII group read the same nonfiction text and then worked through the MCII strategy, listing three positive outcomes associated with attending the exercise session (e.g., losing weight) and three obstacles (e.g., feeling tired). Next, they identified their most important obstacle and, with their therapist, worked out a specific solution to this obstacle before translating it into an implementation intention in the if-then format: “If [obstacle], then I will [response].” In both groups participants were treated by a trained therapist during individual training sessions that involved an equal amount of contact between the therapist and each of the patients.

The attendance and persistence of the patients in the exercise program of the participating clinics during the 4 weeks after their treatment was measured as the dependent variable. In both the autonomy-focused and the highly structured setting, two jogging sessions were scheduled every week and did not conflict with therapies or other events. During jogging sessions, participants could run at their own pace and decide how long they wanted to run. Results in the highly structured setting showed that MCII and control participants alike attended about 70 % of the offered exercise sessions. In the autonomy-focused setting, however, control participants attended less than 40 % of the sessions, whereas the MCII participants continued attending about 70 % of them. When it comes to successful goal attainment, these findings demonstrate the importance of self-regulating one’s goal pursuits and goalstriving in rather unstructured situations. When goal-directed actions were prompted contextually, MCII did not improve goal attainment, for it was already rather high. But when goal-related knowledge mattered because remembering and initiating the goal-directed actions was up to individuals, MCII did improve goal attainment. These findings imply that the MCII self-regulation strategy constitutes a time- and cost-efficient action-control tool that helps patients with severe mental illness (see also Toli, Webb, & Hardy, 2016) to achieve their health-related goals in an autonomous setting.

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