While people certainly do pursue goals purposefully, there is gathering body of empirical research that suggests that there are many circumstances in our everyday life where we are implicitly inclined to pursue certain goals and not others (Shah, 2005). This article will focus on two such unconscious routes of goal motivation and priming.
One source of implicit goal priming is instrumental goal priming, where we are motivated to pursue a certain goal by being in a particular environment and being around particular individuals (Gollwitzer & Brandstatter, 1997). This is because people associate being in a particular environment and around particular individuals as having a particular function, and that function is to reach a particular goal.
Instrumental goal priming thus suggests that if we surround ourselves with various means that would allow us to pursue a particular goal, that goal would become the focal point of our attention (Shah, 2005). Thus, it would be easier to motivate oneself to finish homework if that task is performed at school or in a library instead of doing it at home.
The second source of implicit goal priming is interpersonal goal priming where the stronger a person’s relationship is to a significant other; the more likely that person would be in pursuing what the significant other wants him/her to do (Shah, 2005). Having a close relationship can also lead a person to pursue goals that their significant others are pursing themselves.
The effect of significant other also works the other way, where people can become discouraged in pursuing a goal if that goal is not endorsed by their significant other. The effect of significant other can be so powerful where they automatically affect how a person perceives the difficulty and value of a particular goal, and this would automatically impact whether or not they are going to pursue that particular goal (Shah, 2003).
What happens when there are multiple goals in our everyday life? Research suggests that there is limited amount of energy people have for attending (self-regulating) any particular goal and pursuing these goals depletes our energy (Baumeister et al., 1998). Since our attentional energy is limited, people tend to reserve it for future big and difficult goals, even at the cost of poor performance for current goals (Shah, Brazy, & Jungbluth, 2005). This might be the reason why people slack off.
Baumeister, R.F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D.M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252-1265.
Gollwitzer, P.M., & Brandstatter, V. (1997). Implementation intentions and effective goal pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 171-183.
Shah, J.Y. (2003). The motivational looking glass: How significant others implicitly affect goal appraisals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 424-439.
Shah, J.Y. (2005). The automatic pursuit and management of goals. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 10-13.
Shah, J.Y., Brazy, P., & Jungbluth, N. (2005). SAVE it for later: Implicit effort regulation and the self-regulatory anticipation of volitional exertion. Manuscript submitted for publication.