Library / Consider It done! Plan Making Can Eliminate the Cognitive Effects of Unfulfilled Goals


Study 1

  • 73 undergraduates (49 women; 24 men)
  • Random assignments to one of three conditions:
    • Unfulfilled tasks: thinking of two important tasks that participants need to complete in the next few days
    • Plan: as the previous condition, but participants were asked to make completion plans
    • Control: as the first condition, but participants were asked to think of two tasks they had already completed
  • Reading comprehension task: first 3200 words of “The Case of the Velvet Claws” by Erle Stanley Gardner
    • One word at a time (hitting the space bar to reveal the next word)
    • Four participants suspected (only four?) relations between parts of the study and were excluded from the analysis
  • Eight reading comprehension questions
  • Discussion claim: Participants who reflected on two important but unfinished tasks were distracted during a later attempt to read a novel.

General Discussion

The present research examined a phenomenon known to psychology for almost a century: The persistence in the mind of unfulfilled tasks and goals. Our findings suggest the pattern has not been fully understood. Quite reasonably, the standard assumption has been that incomplete goals remain active in the mind until they are fulfilled, but the present studies showed that goal activation can cease much sooner. Once a specific plan for a goal is made, goal-related cognitive activity is drastically reduced.

Statistical Notes

  • Student-t test on 1-7 digital scale
  • No proper speculations on the effect size
  • No available raw data

Reference

E. J. Masicampo, Roy F. Baumeister “Consider it done! Plan making can eliminate the cognitive effects of unfulfilled goals” (2011) // Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Publisher: American Psychological Association (APA). Vol. 101. No 4. Pp. 667–683. DOI: 10.1037/a0024192

Abstract

Unfulfilled goals persist in the mind, as asserted by ample theory and evidence (e.g., the Zeigarnik effect). The standard assumption has been that such cognitive activation persists until the goal is fulfilled. However, we predicted that contributing to goal pursuit through plan making could satisfy the various cognitive processes that usually promote goal pursuit. In several studies, we activated unfulfilled goals and demonstrated persistent goal activation over time. Unfinished goals caused intrusive thoughts during an unrelated reading task (Studies 1 and 5B), high mental accessibility of goal-related words (Studies 2 and 3), and poor performance on an unrelated anagram task (Study 4). Allowing participants to formulate specific plans for their unfulfilled goals eliminated the various activation and interference effects. Reduction of the effects was mediated by the earnestness of participants’ plans: Those who ultimately executed their plans were those who also exhibited no more intrusions (Study 4). Moreover, changes in goal-related emotions did not appear to be a necessary component of the observed cognitive effects (Studies 5A and 5B). Committing to a specific plan for a goal may therefore not only facilitate attainment of the goal but may also free cognitive resources for other pursuits. Once a plan is made, the drive to attain a goal is suspended–allowing goal-related cognitive activity to cease–and is resumed at the specified later time.

Bib

@Article{masicampo2011,
  title = {Consider it done! Plan making can eliminate the cognitive effects of unfulfilled goals},
  abstract = {Unfulfilled goals persist in the mind, as asserted by ample theory and evidence (e.g., the Zeigarnik effect). The standard assumption has been that such cognitive activation persists until the goal is fulfilled. However, we predicted that contributing to goal pursuit through plan making could satisfy the various cognitive processes that usually promote goal pursuit. In several studies, we activated unfulfilled goals and demonstrated persistent goal activation over time. Unfinished goals caused intrusive thoughts during an unrelated reading task (Studies 1 and 5B), high mental accessibility of goal-related words (Studies 2 and 3), and poor performance on an unrelated anagram task (Study 4). Allowing participants to formulate specific plans for their unfulfilled goals eliminated the various activation and interference effects. Reduction of the effects was mediated by the earnestness of participants' plans: Those who ultimately executed their plans were those who also exhibited no more intrusions (Study 4). Moreover, changes in goal-related emotions did not appear to be a necessary component of the observed cognitive effects (Studies 5A and 5B). Committing to a specific plan for a goal may therefore not only facilitate attainment of the goal but may also free cognitive resources for other pursuits. Once a plan is made, the drive to attain a goal is suspended--allowing goal-related cognitive activity to cease--and is resumed at the specified later time.},
  volume = {101},
  issn = {0022-3514},
  url = {http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0024192},
  doi = {10.1037/a0024192},
  number = {4},
  journal = {Journal of Personality and Social Psychology},
  publisher = {American Psychological Association (APA)},
  author = {Masicampo, E. J. and Baumeister, Roy F.},
  year = {2011},
  pages = {667–683}
}

Quotes (1)

Goal Planning

The human mind is remarkably persistent in its pursuits, often even disturbingly so. Intrusive thoughts remind people of their unfulfilled goals, including to the point of interfering with other tasks. The present results, however, suggest an alternative possibility.

By planning for their goals, people can better manage their multiple pursuits. It has been well documented that specific plans increase success (Gollwitzer, 1999), doing so in part by making goal pursuit more automatic. Once a detailed plan has been made, one no longer has to think about the goal to execute it (Brandsta¨tter et al., 2001). Apparently, a plan reduces the amount of thoughts and attention that are typically recruited in service of an unfulfilled goal. Thoughts of an incomplete goal will not interfere with current concerns so long as a plan has been made to see the goal through later on.

  1. Deep Work (2016) by Cal Newport Has notes 6 4