Motivation Article 3: Implementation Intentions
When people encounter problems in translating their goals into action (e3x: failing
to get started, becoming distracted, or falling into bad habits), they may
strategically call on automatic processes in an attempt to secure goal attainment.
This can be achieved by plans in the form of implementation intentions that link
anticipated critical situations to goal-directed responses (“whenever situation x
arises, I will initiate the goal-directed response y”). Implementation intentions
delegate the control of goal-directed responses to anticipated situational cues,
which (when encountered) elicit these responses automatically.
Studies based on Ajzen’s theory of planned behaviour demonstrate that strong
intentions are reliably observed to be realized more often than weak intentions.
However, the correlations between intentions and behaviour are modest; intentions
account for only 20% to 30% of the variance in behaviour. As well, the strength of
the intention-behaviour relation varies drastically with the type of behaviour that is
specified, and people’s past behaviour commonly turns out to be a better predictor
than their intentions.
Forming good intentions or setting goals is understood as committing oneself to
reaching desired outcomes or to performing desired behaviours. But even if people
make goal commitments, the distance between goal setting and goal attainment is
often long. Successful goal attainment requires that problems associated with
gett8ing started and persisting until the goal is reached are effectively solved.
How can goals, once set, be made more effective?
1) It matters how people frame their good intentions or goals. Better
performances are observed when people set themselves challenging, specific
goals as compared with challenging but vague goals. This goal-specificity
effect is based on feedback and self-monitoring advantages, as is also true
for the goal-proximity effect (proximal goals lead to better performances than
distal goals). Goal attainment is also more likely when people frame their
good intentions as learning goals rather than performance goals or when they
frame their intentions as promotion goals (focusing on the presence or
absence of positive outcomes) rather than prevention goals (focusing on the
presence or absence of negative outcomes).
2) Successful goal pursuit also depends on self-regulatory skills in initiating
goal-directed behaviours and bringing them to a successful ending. It matters
whether one can shield an ongoing goal pursuit from distractions
(transcendence). How a person copes with conflicting goals is also important:
integrations are the most effective.
Preparing Goal Pursuits
Goals can be attained in many different ways. This flexibility is a blessing when
people have to cope with failures on their way to goal attainment, because they can
usually switch to alternative routes. However, this flexibility of goal pursuit is a curse when it comes to swiftly acting on one’s goals, because people have to decide
In-situation decisions primarily scrutinize the suitability of the present situation and
the behaviours appropriate to the present situation. Anticipative decisions, to the
contrary, are less restricted because they allow for incorporation of the whole array
of possible opportunities and instrumental behaviours. A person thus can select the
most effective behaviours and the most suitable opportunities.
When goal pursuit is planned, goal-directed behaviours can be initiated immediately
once a relevant situation is encountered.
Because effortful deliberations in situ are no longer required, action initiation should
be efficient in the sense of demanding few cognitive resources. Action initiation may
even occur without a conscious intent. This automatization of goal implementation
through predeciding, however, not only should be useful to the swift seizing of good
opportunities, but should also help a person protect goal pursuit from tempting
distractions, bad habits or competing goals.
Goal Intentions Vs. Implementation Intentions
Gollwitzer has conceptualized the predeciding of the when, where and how of goal
implementation in terms of forming implementation intentions that are
distinguished from goal intentions.
Goal intentions specify a certain end point that may be either a desired
performance or an outcome. Goal intentions have the structure: “I intend to reach
x.” By forming goal intentions, people translate their noncommittal desires into
Implementation intentions are subordinate to goal intentions and specify the when,
where and how of responses leading to goal attainment. They have the structure of
“When situation x arises, I will perform response y,” and thus link anticipated
opportunities with goal-directed responses. Implementation intentions serve the
purpose of promoting the attainment of the goal specified in the goal intention.
By forming implementation intentions, people can strategically switch from
conscious and effortful control of their goal-directed behaviours to being
automatically controlled by selected situational cues.
Implementation Intentions and Action Initiation
Problems of goal attainment are manifold. One set of problems involves getting
started. When people are highly absorbed in an ongoing activity, wrapped up in
ruminations, gripped by an intense emotional experience, or simply tired, chances
are high that they will not seize an available opportunity to act on their goals,
simply because the opportunity fails to attract attention; attention is focused on
other things. Even when people search for appropriate opportunities in a given
situational context, they may not detect them. The initiation of goal-directed actions
becomes a problem when people let opportunities that present themselves slip
them by. Implementation intentions should be a very effective self-regulatory strategy when
it comes to alleviating problems of getting started on one’s goals. Starting to strive
for a goal facilitates goal completion. When action initiation is easy to begin with,
automatization through implementation intentions has a strong facilitating effect
when action initiation in difficult.
Implementation intentions promote goal attainment by helping people get started.
Implementation Intentions and Unpleasant Goal Pursuits
Data suggests that strong goal intentions produce drastic changes in behaviour only
when they are accompanied by implementation intentions.
Implementation Intention Effects in Critical Populations