Setting Goals: The effect of subconscious goal pursuit

Sitzmann, T., & Bell, B. S. (2017). The dynamic effects of subconscious goal pursuit on resource allocation, task performance, and goal abandonment. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 138, 1-14.

Goal setting is an integral part of self-regulated learning (SRL). Zimmerman’s SRL model identified goal setting as one of the sub processes in the forethought phase (Zimmerman 1989; 2000). Goals provide a sense of purpose for acting and they motivate students to focus on goal-relevant activities, invest effort, persevere on, and select appropriate learning strategies (Locke & Latham, 2006; Schunk & Ertmer, 2000). In view of emerging research supporting the influence of subconscious goals, Sitzmann and Bell (2017) examined two boundary conditions for the effects of subconscious goals: 1) activation of subconscious achievement, and 2) interplay of subconscious and conscious goals.

In the study by Sitzmann and Bell (2017), participants were randomly allocated to experimental conditions that varied in the types of subconscious and conscious goals during an online Microsoft Word training. Three types of subconscious goals were primed: achievement, underachievement, and no goal control. The subconscious achievement goals were primed using images related to winning and exerting effort, for example a cyclist racing up a hill. The subconscious underachievement goals were primed using images related laziness and sleepiness, for example, a person yawning. Participants in the no goal control group received images related to functions in Microsoft Word that do not prime any subconscious goals.

Similarly, three types of conscious goals were activated: difficult, easy, and neutral. The level of difficulty was gauged by time on task and test score. For the difficult conscious goal, participants were told to correctly answer at least four out of six questions and spend more than 30 min to review. For the easy conscious goal, participants were told to correctly answer at least two out of six questions and spend less than 15 min to review. For the neutral conscious goals, participants were only told to do their best and spend as much time as necessary to review.

Result of the study showed that when participants were primed subconscious achievement goals and provided with neutral conscious goals, they spent more time learning and performed better than when difficult or easy goals were provided. The subconscious achievement goal and neutral conscious goal combination led to the best performance compared to other combinations of subconscious and conscious goals. The results suggest specific conscious goals (difficult or easy) can undermine the positive effect of subconscious achievement goals. The authors concluded that subconscious achievement goals facilitate task performance through increased resource allocation. Therefore, it is most effective to assign goal pursuit to the subconscious during skill acquisition.

The results also showed that the combination of subconscious underachievement goals and difficult conscious goals led to better performance only when participants had not perform poorly previously. Thus, suggesting that although subconscious underachievement goals have negative effects on performance and increase goal abandonment, assigning difficult goals can overcome the negative effects when given before poor performances are experienced.

In conclusion, the study highlights the importance of subtle environmental stimuli that can trigger subconscious – achievement or underachievement- goal pursuit. Schools can foster subconscious achievement goals by relaying messages related to exerting effort and excelling to enhance resource allocation and task performance. At the same time, removing messages related to laziness and lethargy can reduce subconscious underachievement goals that undermine task performance and increase goal abandonment. Schools should also be aware of the interplay between subconscious and conscious goals. Subconscious achievement goals should be primed in combination with neutral conscious goals to enhance skill acquisition of complex task that requires significant attentional resources. While difficult conscious goals can be used to mitigate the negative effects of subconscious underachievement goals, the benefit can only be realized before subconscious underachievement goals undermine task performance.

 

References

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2006). New directions in goal-setting theory. Current directions in Psychological Science, 15(5), 265-268.

Schunk, D. H., & Ertmer, P.A. (2000). Self-regulation and academic learning: Self-efficacy enhancing interventions. In M. Boekaerts, P. Pintrich, & M. Zeidner (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation (pp. 631–649). New York, NY: Academic.

Sitzmann, T., & Bell, B. S. (2017). The dynamic effects of subconscious goal pursuit on resource allocation, task performance, and goal abandonment. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 138, 1-14.

Zimmerman, B. J. (1989). A social cognitive view of self-regulated academic learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81(3), 329-339.

Zimmerman, B. J. (2000). Attaining self-regulation: A social cognitive perspective. In M. Boekaerts, P. R. Pintrich, & M. Zeidner (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation (pp. 13–39). New York, NY: Academic.

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