Sunday, 22 April 2012

How to commit to a goal

Reality check

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.
  1. Indulge: imagine a positive vision of the problem solved.
  2. Dwell: think about the negative aspects of the current situation. 
  3. 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.

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