Psychological experiments demonstrate the power of a simple technique for committing to goals.
Here’s a brief story about why we all sometimes get distracted from the most important goals in our lives. Perhaps you recognise it?
You are thinking about changing your job because your boss is a pain and you’re stagnating. As the weeks pass you think about how good it would feel to work for an organisation that really valued you. You think this might be a good goal to commit to but…
Work is busy at the moment, the money is OK and your home-life is also packed. And don’t even mention the economy. When do you have time to update your CV and start exploring the options?
Apart from anything else you’ve been thinking about learning a musical instrument. With the lessons and hours of practice there wouldn’t be any time for interviews.
A few months pass. You forget about changing your job and start to fantasise about learning the piano. Wouldn’t it be wonderful after a hard day’s work to immerse yourself in music?
Unfortunately everyday life intervenes again and you do little more than search online for the price of electric pianos. Then you wonder if what your life needs is…and so on.
After six months you come back full circle to changing your job, still without having made a real start towards any of these goals.
Written like this, with six months compressed into a few paragraphs, it’s obvious the problem is a lack of goal commitment; although in reality, with everyday life to cope with, the pattern can be more difficult to spot.
One major reason we don’t achieve our life’s goals is a lack of commitment. This article describes psychology experiments that suggest how we can encourage ourselves to commit to beneficial goals that could change our lives.
Here, in a series of experiments by Gabriele Oettingen and colleagues, fantasy is involved again, but this time combined with a sobering dose of reality (Oettingen et al., 2001).
The researchers divided 136 participants into three groups and gave them each a different way of thinking about how they wanted to solve a problem, in this case it was an interpersonal one.
- Indulge: imagine a positive vision of the problem solved.
- Dwell: think about the negative aspects of the current situation.
- Contrast: first imagine a positive vision of the problem solved then think about the negative aspects of reality. With both in mind, participants were asked to carry out a ‘reality check’, comparing their fantasy with reality.
Crucially, participants were also asked about their expectations of success in reaching their goal.
The researchers found that the contrast technique was the most effective in encouraging people to make plans of action and in taking responsibility but only when expectations of success were high. When expectations of solving their interpersonal problem were low, those in the mental contrast condition made fewer plans and took less responsibility.
The contrast condition appeared to be forcing people to decide whether their goal was really achievable or not. Then, if they expected to succeed, they committed to the goal; if not, they let it go.
Using this technique, the same thing happens to emotions as well as thoughts. In a second experiment the mental contrasting had the effect of committing people emotionally to the goal if they thought they could succeed, or letting the goal go if they didn’t. Both those who indulged or dwelled made no such emotional investment.
A third experiment found that people in a mental contrast condition were more energised and took action sooner than those who only entertained positive or negative fantasies on their own. Once again people didn’t commit themselves to goals they didn’t expect to achieve.
Why mental contrasting is hard
Carrying out a kind of reality check sounds like a straightforward technique, but from other research we know that it’s easy to get wrong.
The positive fantasies about the future must come first, followed by the negative aspects of reality. Then it’s also vital that we think carefully about the difference between fantasy and reality. A study has found that if people don’t contrast fantasy with reality then the technique doesn’t work (Oettingen & Gollwitzer, 2001).
There’s a good reason why we need to rub our noses in the difference between fantasy and reality. It’s because we hate to have inconsistencies pointed out to us and will attempt all kinds of mental contortions to avoid them. Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance: our mind’s discomfort with thoughts and actions which are incompatible with each other.
Our natural reaction is to avoid bringing fantasy and reality together because it’s uncomfortable. Suddenly it becomes obvious what needs to be done and these realisations can be depressing—we might have a lot of work to do. Worse, we might have to face the fact that our goal is unworkable.
Another reason the technique is difficult is that people dislike moving from happy to depressing thoughts. We want to keep thinking about happy things. Or if we’re thinking negative thoughts, it’s difficult to change to positive.
Hearts and minds
When done right, the strength of this technique is it forces us to decide. People have a natural tendency to avoid decisions, preferring to stay in a fantasy land where the chance of failure is zero.
Mental contrasting makes us ask ourselves if this is really a goal we want to pursue. If not we should forget about it and move on to something else. If we expect to succeed then it forces us to commit our hearts and minds to it, making us act now with energy and focus.
And if we imagine failing then we should anticipate regret. A vague goal you don’t care about is a goal to which you’re not committed. Deciding to do one thing, rather than another is always a kind of risk, both cognitive and emotional. The time we expend pursing one goal is time that can’t be spent pursuing others.
By contrast, if we never fully commit then it’s difficult to achieve anything. What the mental contrasting technique forces you to do is choose. Making a choice—a committed choice—is the first step along the journey to realising your goals.