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Intention superiority effect

Dr. Simon Moss


According to the intention superiority effect, when individuals defer some intention, anything that is related to this plan seems more salient. This effect informs various theories, such as personality systems interaction theory ).

Individuals often form intentions, such as the plan to purchase some food. Nevertheless, individuals must often defer these intentions, waiting for a more suitable time. During this time, the intention is stored as an explicit, verbal representation in memory. That is, the various verbal concepts that relate to this intention--such as the notions of purchasing or food--are highly active. As a consequence, anything that is related to this intention, such as the word apple, is more likely to seem salient or prominent.

Accordingly, if individuals want to memorize specific words or terms, they should form intentions that relate to these items. If individuals would like to remember the name Frank, for example they could form the intention to write this name two hours later.

Empirical demonstrations

This intention superiority effect was first demonstrated by Goschle and Kuhl (1993) and replicated by Marsh, Hicks, and Bryan, 1999. In a typical study, participants need to learn a series of scripted actions, such as visiting a restaurant. After learning these scripts, they are informed they will need to perform some of these actions. In addition, they merely observe the other actions.

Before they execute these scripts, participants might receive a lexical decision task. They have to decide, as rapidly as possible, whether or not various items are legitimate words. Participants recognized words very rapidly if these terms corresponded to the script they would need to perform later. In other words, intentions to perform, rather than observe, some act activated terms and concepts that correspond to this sequence of behaviors.

Indeed, many researchers have uncovered a similar pattern of findings (e.g., Marsh, Hicks, & Bink, 1998& Marsh, Hicks, & Bryan, 1999& Marsh, Hicks, & Watson, 2002). These findings apply whether the task to assess the salience of these concepts involves lexical decision (e.g., Marsh, Hicks, & Bryan, 1999) or recognition (e.g., Goschle & Kuhl, 1993).

For example, in one of the studies conducted by Goschle and Kuhl (1993), participants completed a recognition test. They received either key words associated with the scripts or words that were semantically similar but, nevertheless, unrelated to the script. Participants needed to press a key, as quickly as possible, if these items were included in the script. They needed to press another key of these items were not included in the script. Participants responded more rapidly to words associated with scripts they did need to perform later compared to scripts they did not need to perform later.

Boundaries of the intention superiority effect

The intention superiority effect seems to be robust. This effect, as shown by Goschle and Kuhl (1993), persists even when participants are instructed to count backwards in steps of 3 after the intention was formed. Hence, this effect cannot be ascribed to the inclination of participants to encode only the scripts that need to be performed. Furthermore, this effect cannot be attributed to the tendency of participants to rehearse or imagine only these scripts. The effect also persisted when participants were informed they would need to recall all scripts later (Goschle & Kuhl, 1993).

As Marsh, Hicks, and Bink (1998) showed, the intention superiority effect dissipates, and indeed reverses, after the intention is eventually executed. That is, in the study conducted by Marsh, Hicks, and Bink (1998), participants received a lexical decision task after the intention had been implemented or discarded. Words related to these intentions were recognized more slowly than words unrelated to these intentions (see also Marsh, Hicks, & Bryan, 1999).

Reversible decisions

As implied by the intention superiority effect, when individuals contemplate a decision--such as the choice over which of two products to purchase--any cues or stimuli that relate to these alternatives will be more accessible. Once the decision is reached, these cues or stimuli will no longer be accessible. Nevertheless, as Bullens, van Harreveld, and Forster (2011) showed, if these decisions are reversible, this pattern of findings is not observed. That is, in these instance, the cues or stimuli that correspond to this decision remain accessible. That is, reversible decisions generate the same effects as incomplete decisions.

For example, in one study, conducted by Bullens, van Harreveld, and Forster (2011), participants were granted an opportunity to enter one of two lotteries: They could win either an iPod or DVD player. All participants choose which of these two lotteries they would prefer to enter. Some, but not all, of these participants were informed their decision was reversible: That is, they could change their decision at the end of this session.

Next, participants completed a lexical decision task. That is, strings of letters appeared in sequence. Participants had to indicate which of these strings were words. If the decision was reversible, participants could rapidly recognize words that related to their decision--words like "music". This finding indicates the goal to reach a decision was still activated.

The second study was similar except, rather than complete a lexical decision task, participants undertook an activity that assesses working memory. They completed a series of mathematical equations, each followed by a word. After several equations had appeared, participants attempted to recall all these words. If the decision of participants was reversible, working memory was impaired. Presumably, some of this working memory had been reserved for the reversible decision. In addition, if the decision was reversible, participants were more likely to report a feeling of regret towards their choice.

The impact of plans

Often, individuals do not feel they have fulfilled a goal, such as to clean their house. These unfulfilled goals often distract their attention, impairing their performance on other tasks. Yet, after individuals formulate a specific plan on how to fulfill this unattained goal, this problem subsides. They are not as likely to be distracted. That is, once individuals commit to a plan, their attention is not distracted by the need to deliberate further. They can thus direct their attention to other goals (Masicampo & Baumeister, 2011).

In one study, some participants were asked to identify two tasks they need to complete in the next couple of days. They were told to identify tasks in which they had not planned how to complete these activities. Other participants received the same instructions but were then asked to formulate a plan to complete these tasks--that is, how, when, and where they will undertake these activities. Finally, in the control condition, participants identified two tasks they have already completed recently. Next, all participants read a passage from a book, comprising 3200 words, and were told they will complete a comprehension test afterwards. They read one words at a time. They pressed the space bar to activate the next word. Throughout the task, they were occasionally asked whether or not their attention had strayed. Finally, they completed the comprehension test.

Attention was more likely to stray from the task, compromising comprehension, after participants identified two tasks they had not completed. However, if the participants formed plans on how, where, and when to complete these tasks, they did not experience this problem. Their concentration and comprehension did not differ significantly from control participants (Masicampo & Baumeister, 2011).

In the second study, some university students were asked to identify which of their upcoming exams was the most important. Half of these students were then encouraged to formulate a plan they will follow to optimize their success on this exam. In the control condition, participants identified the social events they will be attending over the next week. Finally, participants completed a procedure that assesses the accessibility of various words. They received a list of words, with some letters missing. For some of these fragments, the answers related to exams, such as te-t representing test, gra-e representing grade, and ex-- representing exam. If participants reflected upon their upcoming exam, they often uncovered words that relate to exams. However, the accessibility of these words was not as high in participants who formulated a plan to complete the exams successfully (Masicampo & Baumeister, 2011).

The third study was similar but examined the accessibility of means to attain a goal. Even the means were not as accessible after individuals formulated a plan, especially if the goal was perceived to be important. Thus, plans do not merely shift attention to specific details, such as the processes or means to complete a goal. Instead, plans actually divert attention from the goal altogether (Masicampo & Baumeister, 2011& for a similar perspective, see mindset theory).

Intention superiority effect and personality

Action versus state orientation

Participants with a state orientation--that is, individuals who cannot readily regulate their emotions--are more likely to demonstrate the intention superiority effect. That is, these individuals are especially likely to recognize words that relate to unfulfilled intentions.

Specifically, individuals with a state orientation cannot readily generate positive mood states, such as excitement or enthusiasm (Koole & Jostmann, 2004& see also Jostmann & Koole, 2006). When positive affect is low, a system, called intention memory, is activated. This system modifies and stores, rather than executes or implements, these intentions. Hence, cognitive representations of their intentions--that is, concepts associated with their plans--will often be salient. In contrast, these intentions, however, will seldom be implemented.

If this model is correct, state orientated individuals should be especially unlikely to fulfill their intentions in demanding contexts. That is, in demanding contexts, individuals feel that goals might not be fulfilled, and hence confidence, as well as positive affect, tends to diminish. State orientated individuals cannot foster this positive affect, and hence intentions will not be fulfilled. Action orientated individuals can foster this positive affect and thus executive intentions--even under these demanding conditions.

Consistent with this premise, Kazen, Kaschel, and Kuhl (2008) did indeed show that individuals with a state orientation, compared to individuals with an action orientation, exhibit deficits in prospective memory (see also Penningroth, 2005). In this study, participants needed to conduct a specific task, such as brushing their hair with an imaginary comb, in response to a particular prompt, such as the word comb. Sometimes, the prompt was preceded by a related term, such as hair. On other occasions, the prompt was preceded by an unrelated term.

State orientated individuals respond more slowly to the prompt. This deficit was especially pronounced when the individuals felt listless rather than enthusiastic as well as when the demands were elevated.

Furthermore, the deficit was more pronounced when unrelated, rather than related, words preceded the prompt. According to Kazen, Kaschel, and Kuhl (2008), if related words precede the prompt, the intention might already be activated and thus does not need to be self initiated.

Regulatory focus

After individuals fulfill some goal, such as clean their house, this goal becomes inhibited and other objectives are pursued instead. Furthermore, any thoughts that relate to this goal, such as a mop or detergent, also tend to be inhibited. Interestingly, as Hedberg and Higgins (2011) showed, this inhibition of information associated with goals is especially pronounced in people who adopt a promotion focus--that is, focus on future aspirations instead of immediate duties (see regulatory focus theory). These individuals are especially inclined to seek diverse opportunities. They like to engage in behaviors that deviate from their previous pursuits. Therefore, after completing one goal, information that is related to this pursuit is inhibited.

A prevention focus generates a different pattern. Indeed, when a prevention focus is elevated, and after a goal is fulfilled, information associated with this objective can become even more active. These individuals are motivated to maintain their satisfactory state rather than pursue other opportunities. Hence, information about fulfilled goals will remain active.

In one study, participants first completed a reaction time measure that gauges regulatory focus. In particular, participants were designated as promotion, rather than prevention, focused if they recognizde their aspirations more rapidly than duties. Second, they undertook another task, in which a series of pictures appeared on the screen. Participants were told to evaluate each picture. Importantly, supposedly to assess concentration, they were told to indicate when an eyeglass appears before a pair of scissors. Finally, at various times during the session, participants also completed a lexical decision task, in which they needed to decide whether strings of letters were words or not words. Some of these words related to eye glasses, such as spectacles or sight.

After participants indicated the eyeglass had appeared before the scissors--and hence their goal to detect this sequence of pictures had been fulfilled--the reaction to recognize words that relate to eye glasses, such as spectacles, increased. That is, participants had inhibited information that related to the fulfilled goal. However, this pattern was observed only in participants who adopted a promotion focus. A different pattern observed in participants who adopted a prevention focus: Over time, these individuals became more likely to recognize these words rapidly. Accessibility of this information increased. This increased accessibility could explain some of the experiences of people with obsessive compulsive disorder. That is, even after completing a goal, such as washing their hands, information about this motive remains accessible.


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Bullens, L., van Harreveld, F., & Forster, J. (2011). Keeping one's options open: The detrimental consequences of decision reversibility. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 800-805.

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Last Update: 6/27/2016