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Mind set theory

Dr. Simon Moss


Individuals are more likely to fulfill some goals if they imagine when and where they will implement these behaviors, called an implementation intention. This concept of implementation intentions emanated from mind set theory.

Mind set theory also explains some other fascinating discoveries. After individuals decide which of several alternatives they will pursue on some task, they become more resistant to novel, unexpected information about other topics as well.

Mind set theory

Mind set theory was developed and refined by Gollwitzer (1990& see also Gollwitzer & Bayer, 1999& Gollwitzer, Fujita, & Oettingen, 2004). According to this theory, the pursuit of goals, such as the attempt to write a compelling essay, comprises two broad phases. Each phase initiatives a distinct profile of cognitive processes.

The first phase is called predecisional or deliberative. During this phase, individuals need to decide which goal or set of goals to pursue. Their main objective is to choose the optimal goal and, therefore, they consider the benefits and drawbacks of each option openly, without bias (Puca, 2001& Taylor & Gollwitzer, 1995).

The second phase is called postdecisional or implemental. During this phase, individuals must initiate an action to realize the goal they selected. Their main objective is to remain committed to the goal. Hence, the often consider the benefits of the chosen goal, neglecting contradictory information (Puca, 2001& Taylor & Gollwitzer, 1995).

Interestingly, other activities, unrelated to the goal, can activate a particular phase, sometimes called a mindset (Heckhausen & Gollwitzer, 1987), which in turn affects the processing of information on other tasks.

Evidence that mindsets generalize to other activities

In a typical study, individuals are informed they will later complete a task, such as write an essay. Some participants are encouraged to decide which essay to write, putatively activating a postdecisonal or implemental mindset. Other participants are encouraged to defer this decision, putatively activating a predecisonal or deliberative mindset. All participants then complete another task, intended to characterize their cognitive processing style.

Participants who supposedly operate in the implementation phase are less able to remember incidental information that was presented during the second task (see Gollwitzer & Bayer, 1999). That is, these participants focus their attention on information that is consistent with their decisions, neglecting all other cues.

Similarly, using a similar paradigm, Henderson, de Liver, and Gollwitzer (2008) confirmed that participants who operate in the implementation phase form more extreme attitudes on other issues. That is, this phase curbs their tendency to form unbiased opinions. They focus only on information that confirms their attitudes. Accordingly, their attitudes are more extreme, less ambivalent, and more inclined to affect their behavior.

The benefits of goals that comprise a fixed sequence of tasks

Sometimes, to achieve some goal, such as to write a report, individuals can complete the various tasks in any order they choose. On other occasions, to achieve some goals, people must complete each task in a particular, fixed order. As Jin, Huang, and Zhang (2013) showed, if tasks need to be completed in a fixed order, people are not as inclined to adopt the goal& they assume the goal will be more difficult to achieve. But, once adopted, individuals are more likely to complete a set of tasks that need to be attempted in a fixed order. In particular, if tasks need to be completed in a specific order, fewer decisions need to be reached, enabling people to maintain an implementation, rather than deliberation, mindset.

To illustrate, in one study, participants were granted loyalty cards. They earned a stamp each time they purchased a specific flavor of yoghurt, and they were rewarded with two free tubs once six flavors had been purchased. Some participants were instructed they must consume these flavors in a specific order& other participants did not receive this instruction. In addition, a portion of participants were told they must return the next day with their card to activate or initiate this program, implying they had yet to adopt the goal.

Participants who had not yet adopted the goal were more inclined to activate or initiate the program if the flavors did not need to be purchased in a specific order. Yet, participants who had already adopted the goal were more likely to complete the program, and receive the two free tubs, if the flavors had to be purchased in a specific order.

Subsequent studies replicated this pattern of results but in other settings and contexts, such as the goal to transcribe text from five different languages. Furthermore, if a particular sequence of tasks was suggested, but not enforced, participants were also more inclined to achieve the goal, again because fewer decisions need to be reached, and an implementation mindset was thus more likely.

Determinants and manipulations of mindset

Several protocols have been developed to activate each mindset. For example, to activate a deliberative mindset, participants in one study were instructed to nominate a personal issue in their life and consider the benefits and drawbacks of various potential solutions (Henderson, de Liver, & Gollwitzer, 2008). To activate an implemental mindset, participants were instructed to nominate a personal goal or project they would like to fulfill within 3 months and list five steps they will undertake to reach this objective. They also indicated when, where, and how they will perform these steps. An implemental mindset reduced the likelihood of ambivalent attitudes.

Virtual boundaries

Sometimes, subtle cues imply that a person is embedded within a task, setting, or system. For example, as soon as people reach the ropes that designate queues, they feel more committed to waiting. Similarly, after people pass the security guards at a concert, they feel more committed to this event. That is, after individuals transcend some boundary that demarcates the task, setting, or system, they feel they have chosen this alternative. That is, they experience an implementation mindset rather than a deliberation mindset. Consequently, they show the hallmarks of this mindset: persistence and optimism, for example.

For example, in one study, reported by Zhao, Lee, and Soman (2012), participants were were more likely to stay in line in an ATM queue if the rope that demarcated this queue was long rather than short. Presumably, as soon as participants reached this rope, they felt committed to this task, reflecting an implementation mindset.

In a subsequent study in this report, participants waited in a room. These individuals had either passed the experimenter and told to wait inside, implying they had transcended a boundary, or had not passed the experimenter and told to wait outside, implying they had not transcended a boundary. If they had transcended the boundary, they were more likely to predict they would sink many putts on a golf course. Presumably, after transcending a boundary, participants experienced an implementation mindset, and this mindset tends to enhance optimism.

Physical acts

As Gu, Botti, and Faro (2013) showed, some physical acts, such as literally covering an alternative, has been shown to diminish doubts about a decision. That is, presumably, after individuals engage in these acts, an implementation phase is primed. These individuals no longer feel the need to reconsider their decision, increasing satisfaction with their choice.

In this study, participants were exposed to either one or four rows of 6 chocolates on a tray under a transparent lid. Next to each chocolate was a label, such as marzipan orange dark chocolate. Participants were then asked to remove the lid, choose one chocolate carefully, and then try this choice. Some but not all participants were then encouraged to return the transparent lid to its original place above the chocolates. Participants then answered a series of questions, such as their satisfaction with the chocolate and the extent to which they perceive their decision as settled.

In general, if participants had returned the lid, indicating a sense of closure, they were more likely to be satisfied with their choice--but only if 24 rather than 6 chocolates had been displayed. That is, the lid was effective in the condition in which the decision was especially difficult. Furthermore, the act of covering the chocolates fostered a sense of closure, in which individuals felt the decision was settled.

Subsequent studies vindicated and extended these findings. For example, closing a menu increased satisfaction with the choice. Likewise, these findings persisted even after controlling negative affect. Furthermore, if someone else performed this act--or this act was attributed to another cause--these physical actions of closure were not as effective. Presumably, these physical acts are effective only when people feel this action implied a sense of closure.

Implementation intentions

To implement the goals that are selected, some individuals form implementation intentions (Gollwitzer, 1993, 1999& Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006). In particular, some individuals form conditional plans, in which they imagine the precise behaviors they will undertake in response to specific cues. That is, they might form an image of when, where, and how they will execute the intended behavior.

In contrast, some individuals do not form conditional plans. They might decide to execute a behavior without specifying the time, place, or context in which this act should be implemented--called a goal intention not an implementation intention. Many studies indicate that individuals are more inclined to fulfill their goals if they form implementation intentions--that is, if they consider the conditions under which they will execute the intended behaviors (e.g., Oettingen, Hoig, & Gollwitzer, 2000& for more information, see Implementation intentions).

Related topics

Determinants of commitment: Number of means

When individuals form a goal, such as the goal to attract 10 clients or work more efficiently, they can also identify possible means, avenues, or opportunities to fulfil these objectives. They might consider all the people they can telephone. They might reflect upon different marketing campaigns they could introduce or software packages they might utilize. If individuals identify several, rather than only one or two means, they are more likely to feel committed to their goals.

This possibility was first proposed and then validated by Kruglanski, Pierro, and Sheveland (2011) in a series of four studies. In the first study, participants were asked to indicate two goals at work they would like to achieve over the next three months. Next, they were asked to specify between one and five means they could pursue to reach these goals, such as read a textbook, seek advice, and so forth.

If participants identified several means, instead of only one or two means, they were more likely to exhibit commitment to their goals. That is, they maintained they will dedicate considerable effort and intensity to these objectives. However, they were not as committed to these means: That is, they contended they would not feel especially irritated or upset if any of these means were thwarted, presumably because other alternatives were available.

This study also identified the variables that mediate the association between the number of means and goal commitment. Specifically, the degree to which people perceived the goal as feasible and important mediated this relationship.

The remaining studies replicated these findings, after introducing minor amendments. For example, Study 2 was the same as Study 1, except participants were asked to indicate the people that could support their attempts to fulfil their goals. That is, these people represented the means. In Studies 3 and 4, participants were specifically asked to identify several or one means--that is, number of means was manipulated experimentally. These variants, however, did not affect the overall pattern of results.

In short, as these results indicate, when individuals uncover several distinct means to fulfil a goal, they become more committed to this objective. Specifically, because the impediment of one means will not obstruct the goal, several means increases the perceived feasibility of this pursuit. Furthermore, if individuals consider several means, they can imagine how the goal might unfold more readily& that is, the goal becomes more vivid, increasing its perceived importance (see fluency and the hedonic marking hypothesis).

These findings yield some practical implications. Leaders, for example, often need to encourage employees to pursue some contentious goal--a goal that not everyone embraces. To promote commitment, leaders should ask employees to identify three or four possible avenues that could, hypothetically, be explored to pursue some potential goal or vision. They might ask "If we decided to introduce a new product line, can you think of a few ways we could proceed?" After employees reflect upon these avenues or means, they are then more inclined to commit to this goal.

Determinants of the number of means

The capacity to identify many means to achieve a goal partly depends on the number of goals that are accessible. That is, according to Kopetz, Faber, Fishbach, and Kruglanski (2011), when several goals are accessible, individuals will identify only means that are compatible with all these goals. They will, therefore, only consider a subset of means. If they want to enhance their health, they might confine their attention only to food instead of exercise.

For example, in one study, university students were approached near a particular cafeteria. These students were purchasing their lunch and, therefore, attempting to achieve their goal to satisfy their hunger. Some of these students were asked to identify three other goals or tasks they have already completed that day. Completed goals are usually inhibited rather than activated. In contrast, other students were asked to identify three goals or tasks they plan to complete that day. This question should activate alternative goals, such as to exercise or to study.

Finally, the students were asked to indicate which foods they desire from a list of 20 alternatives, representing means to satisfy their hunger. Interestingly, if alternative goals had been activated, individuals were especially likely to choose foods that are sold in the cafeteria nearby rather than cafeterias further away. Conceivably, when participants became aware of other goals, they choose only foods they could purchase quickly, increasing the likelihood they can achieve other tasks. In other words, when alternative goals were salient, individuals considered only a subset of means--only the foods nearby.

Study 2, however, showed that alternative goals often, but do not always, reduce the number of means that people select. In this study, the participants were all committed to the goal of living a healthy life. A series of phrases were presented, such as "sleep well" or "follow a balanced diet". Participants had to indicate which of these phrases represent activities they plan to undertake to fulfill this goal. Unbeknownst to participants, however, these phrases were preceded by subliminal words, each representing alternative goals. These alternative goals were highly related to health, such as exercise, modestly related to health, such as study, or unrelated to health, such as party.

If the alternative goal was modestly related to health, participants tended to choose few activities to fulfill their goal. That is, an alternative goal curbed the number of means that participants selected. However, if the alternative goal was highly related or not at all related to health, they choose many means to fulfill their goal. Presumably, if participants felt the goal to improve health and the alternative goal were entirely compatible, any means that enhances one of these objectives should enhance the other objective. They did not need to confine the number of means they selected. Conversely, if participants felt the goal to improve health and the alternative goal were entirely incompatible, they knew they could focus on only one goal at a time. They merely disregarded the alternative goal.

Furthermore, if the target goal was perceived as appreciably more important than was the alternative goal, the number of means that participants selected was not reduced. Again, in this instance, the participants presumably inhibited the alternative goal.

Variety of means

Sometimes, to achieve a goal, such as achieve excellent grades at university, individuals can undertake many activities or means. They could, for example, read a book, study with friends, contact a tutor, or practice exams. In some instances, the means to achieve a goal seem quite similar to each other. In other instances, these means seem quite different to each other. As Etkin, and Ratner (2012) showed, a diversity or variety of means enhances motivation, unless the individuals have progressed considerably on this goal.

To illustrate, in one of the studies that was reported by Etkin and Ratner (2012), undergraduate students were asked to confirm whether or not they are pursuing an academic goal, such as to complete a course or to receive a distinction. Next, some of the students were asked to indicate when they last studied for 8 hours consecutively. Because, in reality, few students had studied for 8 hours consecutively, this question diminished their sense of progress on this academic goal. Other students were asked to indicate when they last studied for 30 minutes consecutively. Because most students had studied for 30 minutes consecutively, this question increased their sense of progress on this academic goal.

Next, participants received a list of activities or means that could be utilized to pursue their academic goal: reading a textbook, meeting a tutor, attending a review session, and reading supplementary materials. Some participants were asked to describe the similarities across these means, an exercise that diminishes the perceived variety of these means. Other participants were asked to describe the differences between these means, an exercise that increases the perceived variety of these means.

Finally, participants completed a series of anagrams. They were told these anagrams reflect a measure of academic performance and, therefore, correspond to their academic goals.

If participants had been induced to believe they had not progressed appreciably on their academic goal, they were more likely to persist on these anagrams when they perceived the four means as diverse. That is, this variety increased the number of anagrams they attempted and solved. In contrast, if participants had been induced to believe they had progressed appreciably on their academic goals, they were more likely to persist on these anagrams when they perceived as four means as similar to each other.

Presumably, when individuals have not significantly progressed on a goal, they are not as certain of the constraints or complication that could transpire. Fortunately, if the means vary considerably from each other, these people are sure they can accommodate these contingencies. They are certain they can be flexible enough.

However, when individuals have significantly progressed on a goal, the benefits of this variety dissipate. That is, the flexibility this variety affords is no longer as beneficial, because unexpected complications are not as likely. Instead, this variety merely evokes uncertainty: individuals are not certain which means they should choose, provoking doubt and decreasing their confidence and motivation.


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