Volitional behavior has long been associated with consciousness (Custers & Aarts, 2010; Dijksterhuis & Aarts, 2010), in that goal pursuit has been assumed to be the consequence of a conscious intention or a conscious decision to act to attain a goal. However, recent research has challenged this view. A sizeable literature has shown that the mere activation of a goal representation guides behavior and higher cognitive processes involved in goal-directed behavior without conscious awareness. The idea that goals can direct behavior unconsciously is based on the notion that goals are parts of knowledge networks that include representations of the goal itself, actions, procedures, and objects that help goal pursuit (Aarts & Dijksterhuis, 2000, 2003; Bargh & Gollwitzer, 1994; Cooper & Shallice, 2006; Custers & Aarts, 2010; Dijksterhuis & Aarts, 2010; Kruglanski, Shah, Fishbach, Friedman, Chun, & Sleeth-Keppler, 2002). Such networks enable people to act on goals without intentional control or without explicit expectancies. Thus, goal-directed behavior can start outside of conscious awareness, because goal representations can be primed by, and interact with, behavioral and contextual information.

Perhaps the most well-known example is the work of Bargh and colleagues (Bargh, Gollwitzer, Lee-Chai, Barndollar, & Trotschel, 2001). They unobtrusively exposed participants to words such as “strive” and “succeed” to prime an achievement goal (a goal held by most students) and then offered them the opportunity to achieve by presenting them with a task in which they had to solve anagram. Participants primed with the achievement goal outperformed those who were not primed. Bargh et al. also demonstrated that such goal priming leads to qualities associated with motivational states or “goal-directedness,” such as persistence and increased effort in working towards the goal. These and other recent experimental demonstrations (Aarts, Custers, & Marien, 2008; Lakin & Chartrand, 2003) indicate that the mere activation of a goal representation suffices to motivate people to work on the primed goal without any conscious awareness of the goal.

In another, imaginative demonstration of this idea, Holland, Hendriks, and Aarts (2005) examined whether the mere perception of odor is capable of directly activating goals. They exposed some participants to the scent of all-purpose cleaner without participants’ conscious awareness of the presence of the scent. Because the scent of all-purpose cleaner was assumed to enhance the accessibility of the goal of cleaning, Holland et al. hypothesized that participants exposed to the scent would spontaneously start to be cleaner. Participants were requested to eat a very crumbly cookie in the lab, and, indeed, participants exposed to the scent put in more effort to keep their environment clean and crumb-free, even though the task and situation in which they applied their skills of cleaning was novel. These results indicate that goal activation can encourage people to exploit new opportunities in novel settings without awareness of the operation of the goal.

To recapitulate, goals can set various unconscious processes in motion. In fact, goal activation itself can happen unconsciously.

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