How Goals Interact With Behavioral Plans

A study, published in 2005 in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, investigated how peoples goals interacted with more concrete behavioral plans in line with these goals.

The scientists made a separation between two main concepts:

  • Goals intentions

  • Behavioral intentions

Goal intentions measure the strength of individuals desire for reaching a certain goal. Behavioral intentions meanwhile, are concerned with the concrete actions needed to be taken, at a certain situation, to achieve said goal.

Previous research has established that if-then- strategies are very important aspects of habit formation. These basically define what to do, but also where to do it. In this way, once an if-then-strategy is formed, the defined situation acts as a behavioral cue, that increases the chance of an action being taken towards ones goal. Goal intentions - formulating ones desired goal, seems to help people take action mainly in areas where the immediate environment is changeable and therefore if-then-strategies are hard to implement.

What the scientist investigated here - however - was wether either of these two were dependent on each other for taking action towards a goal. UK undergraduates in the study were asked to first define how much they were willing to study under the coming week,in terms of hours. They were also asked to define their attitudes, sense of control and social norms around their goal of studying. Some of them were also asked to define behavioral intentions in line with their study goals. After a few weeks, goal attainment was measured.

What they saw as results were quite interesting. It turns out that behavioral intentions were only predictive of taking action, if peoples underlying goal intentions were strong.

To follow up, they made a second study where they primed goal intentions subconsciously for the participants, and could observe that implementation intentions were only useful when the goal was activated subconsciously.

To summarize, this study demonstrates that defining concrete behaviors are highly effective for taking action towards ones goals, but only if the underlying goals are also motivating in and of themselves. Furthermore, in order for them to be effective, the goal has to be activated either consciously or subconsciously in the participants. In the first study, the goal was obviously always "activated" for participants, because they wrote them down beforehand.

This study might explain quite well, why many attempts to promote healthy behaviors fall short within existing tech-platforms. Both behavioral and goal intentions need to be dealt with in order to insure people take action towards desired goals. In order for habits to be formed, their underlying goals need to be ensured to be meaningful.



Sheeran, P., Webb, T. L., & Gollwitzer, P. M.(2005). The interplay between goal intentions and implementation intentions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(1), 87–98.

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