The following is a summary of some of the key concepts in the scientific literature of goal pursuit, in relatively plain English, with practical examples and relevant citations. This is a work in progress and obviously far from complete.
Positive fantasies are pleasurable free-floating internal images or self-talk about a desired outcome. (See Oettingen, 2012.)
John wants to lose weight. He imagines how great it would be to be 50lbs lighter like he was in college, and how he imagines getting attention for his looks from the opposite sex. John’s thoughts are positive fantasies.
Negative fantasies are unpleasant free-floating internal images or self-talk about a desired outcome.
Mary also wants to lose weight. She imagines herself struggling with giving up sweet foods and thinks about how difficult it will be to get up early to go exercise at the gym. Mary’s thoughts are negative fantasies.
Expectations are assessments of how likely a person thinks something is to happen, i.e. beliefs about future possibilities.
When asked, “how likely do you think it is that you will lose the weight you want to lose on a scale from 1-10, where 1 is not at all likely and 10 is completely likely?” John answers 2 and Mary answers 8. John therefore has negative (low) expectations of success, whereas Mary has positive (high) expectations of success.
John has positive fantasies but low expectations, and Mary has negative fantasies but high expectations.
Expectations correlate with past performance. Mary has successfully lost weight in the past, but John has tried several times and failed. Positive (high) expectations correlate with higher levels of goal achievement than negative (low) expectations.
Surprisingly, positive fantasies correlate with lower goal achievement than negative fantasies. This is true regardless of whether the fantasies are spontaneously generated by the mind, or deliberately generated as in an exercise.
Positive fantasies may lead to lower goal achievement because they are de-energizing (they lower systolic blood pressure and lead to subjective reports of being less energized), possibly due to feeling like one has already achieved the goal and thus doesn’t need to do anything.
Positive fantasies also may be overly idealistic, portraying the goal as easily and effortlessly achieved, creating a fragile optimism easily shattered by the first obstacle.
Negative fantasies may lead to higher goal success than positive fantasies due to thinking about possible obstacles and thus being more mentally prepared when obstacles are encountered.
Fantasy Realization Theory and Mental Contrasting
Fantasy Realization Theory aims to discover how we can turn our positive fantasies into reality. One finding so far is that mentally contrasting an aspect of a desired future with an aspect of the present which stands in the way creates expectancy-dependent goal striving. (See Oettingen, 2012.)
When you expect that you can realistically attain your outcome, thinking first about what you’d like to have happen and then what stands in the way gets you energized to go for it. Whereas when you expect that what you want to have happen is unlikely, thinking first about what you want and then what stands in the way leads to abandoning the goal, perhaps for something more realistic.
If your realistic expectations are high that you will achieve your goal, mental contrasting works much better than indulging in positive fantasies or dwelling on the present, undesired reality. Mentally contrasting one’s feasible, desired future with present reality that stands in the way also works better than “reverse contrasting” — thinking first about reality and then about one’s desired outcome. This is probably because thinking first about what one wants then frames present reality as an obstacle to be overcome, whereas in reverse contrasting the present reality is not seen as an obstacle.
Recall that Mary has high expectations (8/10) that she will be able to achieve her weight loss goal. Mary thinks about how great it will be to have lost the weight, focusing on how she will fit into her favorite clothing again. Then Mary thinks about how she will need to spend time cooking dinners at home. Thinking about this, Mary feels energized and ready to take on the challenge of cooking healthy meals.
John has low expectations (2/10) of successfully losing weight. He thinks about how great it will be to lose the weight, getting attention from the ladies which he has been wanting. But then he thinks about the present and how he loves drinking lots of beer which has given him a large gut. He doesn’t want to give up drinking, and the likelihood of success appears slim, so he abandons his weight loss goal.
Goals, Goal Intentions, and Implementation Intentions
Goals are desired outcomes, like “reach Z.”
Goal intentions are statements of one’s intention to reach a goal, like “I intend to reach Z!”
Challenging goals lead to greater performance than easy goals, and specific challenging goals lead to better performance than vague goals like “try hard!” or “do your best!” — as long as the goals are realistic (See Locke, 1968 and Bar-Eli, Tenenbaum, Pie, Btesh, and Almog, 1997.)
However, holding a strong goal intention does not guarantee goal achievement. (See Gollwitzer and Sheeran, 2006.)
Implementation intentions spell out the where, when, and how of goal intentions. They are also called “if-then” plans because they take the form, “If I encounter situation Y, I will do X!” where X is an action chosen to reach a goal. Adding implementation intentions to goal intentions increases the likelihood of success, perhaps due to creating strong cue-behavior links which makes the behavior automatic.
Mary decides to cook healthy dinners at home. She creates the following plan for herself: “If I am driving home from work, I will stop by the grocery store to pick up chicken breast and vegetables to cook for dinner!”
Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions
Doing mental contrasting with implementation intentions together has been shown to lead to greater goal achievement than either mental contrasting or implementation intentions alone, again when expectations are high. (See Oettingen, 2012.)
A simple version of mental contrasting with implementation intentions is summarized in the acronym WOOP:
W — My Wish
O — Best Outcome
O — Obstacle
P — If-Then Plan: If [obstacle], Then [action to overcome obstacle].
A learning goal orientation is when a person pursues a goal to learn and get feedback that helps build competence in an area.
A performance goal orientation is when a person seeks to demonstrate competence, preferring positive feedback and wanting to avoid negative feedback — in other words, they want to look good!
A learning goal orientation implies the person has an incremental theory — their ability is viewed as changeable, and can be developed with effort and persistence. For instance, people who believe that intelligence can be improved by reading difficult books and trying to understand the concepts are operating within an incremental theory.
A performance goal orientation implies the person has an entity theory — their ability is viewed as fixed or innate, and therefore cannot be developed with effort, or not without herculean efforts. People who believe that intelligence is fixed and cannot be significantly changed through effort are operating within an entity theory.
Jane is Mary’s friend and also wants to lose weight. However, when Jane tried in the past, she lost 35lbs but then gained back 40lbs. Jane was ashamed that she had failed and concluded that she has “fat genes,” abandoning her hopes of becoming a healthy weight. Jane is operating from a performance goal orientation with a corresponding entity theory.
Mary was on the same diet as Jane, and had similar results. However, she was not discouraged, concluding “I gained back the weight because I stopped cooking healthy meals for myself and started eating sweets again.” Mary has a learning goal orientation and a corresponding incremental theory with regards to her weight loss goals.
Incremental theory vs. entity theory is also called growth mindset vs. fixed mindset. (See Dweck, 2007.)
Self-Regulation, Willpower, and Ego Depletion
Self-regulation refers to one’s ability to regulate (manage, control) one’s own behaviors, emotions, and thoughts. Failure to achieve a desired outcome is said to be due to “self-regulation failure” or “self-regulatory problems.” (See Baumeister and Heatherton, 1996.)
Willpower is the ability to self-regulate. When people perform one challenging task, performing a second challenging task unrelated in kind will generally suffer in performance. Therefore one of the most prominent theories of willpower is that it functions as a limited resource. (See Muraven, Tice, and Baumeister 1998.)
When a person performs worse on a second difficult task due to having performed an earlier difficult task, they are said to be in a state of ego depletion, as if their inner stock of willpower is depleted like a battery and needs recharging. (See Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, and Tice, 1998.)
Some recent research challenges the theory of willpower as a limited resource, arguing that the resource idea is a metaphor and not the actual mechanism of reduced performance after a challenging task. (See Inzlicht and Schmeichel, 2012.) For instance, whether one thinks of willpower as being a limited resource or more unlimited moderates ego depletion effects.
In other words, people perform better on a second challenging task if they think willpower is unlimited rather than limited. (See Job, Dweck, and Walton, 2010.) What appears to be a depleted inner resource may in fact be simply a change in motivation and attention. That is, after doing something difficult, we tend to be more motivated to seek out rewards and aware of pleasurable activities than additional effortful activities.
Automaticity (also called automatic processing, as opposed to controlled processing) refers to doing something automatically. Behaviors that are performed automatically do not require willpower and thus do not deplete ego strength. Usually automaticity is the result of learning and practice after many repetitions. (See Schneider and Chein, 2003.)
One reason implementation intentions may be more effective than just setting strong goal intentions is that they lead to automaticity. (See Gollwitzer and Sheeran, 2006.) When you specify the where, when, and how you will reach your goal in an if-then plan, you don’t need willpower to follow through (as long as the cue is specific, the cue-behavior link is strong, and the goal is still a goal for you). If your goal is a challenging one, not having to use so much willpower is very helpful, especially since many challenging personal goals are in essence self-regulation problems.
Recall Mary’s implementation intention: “If I am driving home from work, I will stop by the grocery store to pick up chicken breast and vegetables to cook for dinner!” When she drives home that night, she finds herself just automatically driving to the grocery store and buying what she needs to cook dinner. The task feels easy to her, because she made a specific plan (stop by the grocery store to pick up chicken breast and vegetables) with a clear cue (driving home from work).
Goals are pursued and adjusted through feedback loops such as Test-Operate-Test-Adjust-Loops (TOTAL) and Test-Operate-Test-Exit loops (TOTE). (See Wang and Mukhopadhyay, 2012 and Miller, Galanter, and Pribram, 1960.).
Test: Mary steps on her bathroom scale and sees that she currently weighs 150lbs.
Operate: She decides to cook healthy meals and skip the sweets as a method for losing weight.
Test: She tries out one recipe but doesn’t like the taste.
Adjust/Operate: So she tries a different recipe instead.
Exit: She continues to try different things until she fits back into her old “skinny jeans.”