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When Intentions Go Public
Does Social Reality Widen the Intention-Behavior Gap?
Peter M. Gollwitzer,
and Andrea E. Seifert
New York University,
¨t Konstanz, and
University of Shefﬁeld
ABSTRACT—Based on Lewinian goal theory in general and
self-completion theory in particular, four experiments ex-
amined the implications of other people taking notice of
one’s identity-related behavioral intentions (e.g., the in-
tention to read law periodicals regularly to reach the
identity goal of becoming a lawyer). Identity-related be-
havioral intentions that had been noticed by other people
were translated into action less intensively than those that
had been ignored (Studies 1–3). This effect was evident in
the ﬁeld (persistent striving over 1 week’s time; Study 1)
and in the laboratory (jumping on opportunities to act;
Studies 2 and 3), and it held among participants with
strong but not weak commitment to the identity goal (Study
3). Study 4 showed, in addition, that when other people
take notice of an individual’s identity-related behavioral
intention, this gives the individual a premature sense of
possessing the aspired-to identity.
Are scientists more likely to write papers if they tell colleagues
about this intention than if they keep the intention private? It is
commonly assumed that whenever people make their intentions
public, the behavioral impact of these intentions is enhanced
(e.g., Staats, Harland, & Wilke, 2004). These effects are pos-
tulated to be a consequence of multiple processes. Research on
persuasion techniques points to one of these processes (Cialdini
& Trost, 1998). It is argued that a publicly stated behavioral
intention commits the individual to a certain self-view (e.g., ‘‘I
am a productive person’’) with which the person then acts con-
sistently. Indeed, individuals with a higher need for consistency
show stronger public-commitment effects (Cialdini, Wosinka,
Barrett, Butner, & Gornik-Durose, 1999). The second process is
referred to as accountability (Lerner & Tetlock, 1999). Making
intentions public is said to make a person accountable to the
addressed audience, and research has shown that various ac-
countability-related features of the audience (e.g., competence,
power) and the individual (e.g., identiﬁability, expectations of
having to explain oneself) affect the strength of public-com-
Both of these lines of research focus on intentions in which the
speciﬁed behavior is a desired outcome in and of itself. Lewin
(1926) and his colleagues (e.g., Mahler, 1935; Ovsiankina,
1928), however, argued that people often construe behavioral
intentions in more general terms, thus allowing substitution of
means for attainment. For instance, consider a student who has
started an assigned math task with the intention to successfully
solve the required addition problems. During the process, this
student may construe the intention as being to demonstrate
mathematical skills, and this conceptually broader intention
may also be reached by solving subtraction problems (i.e., by
substitute activities). Ovsiankina and Mahler observed that a
substitute activity engenders a sense of having reached the
conceptually broader intention, given that performance of the
substitute activity has been witnessed by other people (i.e., has
become a social reality). On the basis of this line of thought—
which we explicate in the framework of self-completion theory
(SCT; Gollwitzer & Kirchhof, 1998; Wicklund & Gollwitzer,
1982)—we propose that social recognition of an identity-rele-
vant behavioral intention may have negative effects on its en-
SCT proposes that people who are committed to identity goals
(e.g., becoming a good parent, scientist, or craftsperson) can
undertake a variety of activities to claim goal attainment. For a
scientist, such activities, or identity symbols, include engaging
in professional duties (e.g., giving lectures), making positive
self-descriptions (e.g., ‘‘I discovered a new principle!’’), exerting
identity-relevant social inﬂuence (e.g., advising students), and
acquiring skills and tools that facilitate striving for the identity
goal (e.g., programming skills, computers). However, failing to
perform an identity-relevant activity or facing the lack of an
identity symbol produces a state of incompleteness (Wicklund &
Gollwitzer, 1982). To restore completeness, the individual
makes efforts to acquire alternative identity symbols (e.g., de-
scribing oneself as having the required personality attributes:
Address correspondence to Peter M. Gollwitzer, New York Univer-
sity, Psychology Department, 6 Washington Place, 7th Floor, New
York, NY 10003, e-mail: email@example.com.
612 Volume 20—Number 5Copyright r2009 Association for Psychological Science
Gollwitzer & Wicklund, 1985; engaging in identity-relevant
activities: Brunstein & Gollwitzer, 1996; showing off relevant
status symbols: Harmon-Jones, Schmeichel, & Harmon-Jones,
2009). Using opportunities to afﬁrm one’s general self-integrity
or to bolster one’s self-esteem is not sufﬁcient to offset incom-
pleteness regarding an identity goal; rather, it is necessary to
acquire speciﬁc identity symbols (Ledgerwood, Liviatan, &
SCT research has also shown that an individual reaches a
higher level of completeness when his or her identity-relevant
activities are noticed by a social audience (Gollwitzer, 1986).
Moreover, research has shown that incomplete individuals are
more concerned with ﬁnding an audience for their identity
strivings, compared with complete individuals (Brunstein &
Gollwitzer, 1996). Positive self-descriptions made in public
qualify as powerful identity symbols (Gollwitzer, Wicklund, &
Hilton, 1982), and having an audience for behavioral intentions
that specify the successful performance of an identity-relevant
activity should have the same symbolic impact. The implication
is that when other people take notice of a stated identity-relevant
behavioral intention, this should engender completeness re-
garding the superordinate identity goal, and thus reaching the
identity goal by actually performing the intended behavior
should become less necessary. In other words, people should be
less likely to translate their identity-relevant behavioral inten-
tions into action when other people have taken notice of those
intentions. We conducted four experiments entailing a variety of
identity goals and behavioral intentions to test this hypothesis.
In Study 1, we asked college students committed to becoming a
psychologist to form identity-relevant studying intentions. After
either taking notice of these intentions or ignoring them, we
assessed how effectively the students enacted their intentions
over the subsequent week.
Forty-nine psychology students (38 women, 11 men) at a Ger-
man university were recruited after introductory lectures. Par-
ticipants were informed that they would take part in a survey
about the study intentions of ﬁrst-year psychology students. A
ﬁrst questionnaire assessed commitment to becoming a psy-
chologist using the following items:
‘‘How important is it for you to ﬁnd a psychology-related job?’’
‘‘Suppose that you could not ﬁnish your studies of psychology
successfully. How much would that bother you?’’
‘‘How happy would you be in a job that is not related to
Participants responded to these items on 9-point scales ranging
from 1, not at all,to9,very much. Responses were averaged to
form a scale (a5.80). Next, participants were asked to write
down their two most important study intentions for the forth-
coming week (e.g., ‘‘I will take my reading assignments more
seriously,’’ ‘‘I intend to study more statistics’’).
In the social-reality condition, the experimenter read through
each participant’s reported intentions, presumably to ensure
that the participant had understood the instructions. In the no-
social-reality condition, participants were told that the page of
the questionnaire on which participants had written down their
behavioral intentions had been wrongly included in the study,
and that this page would be discarded (i.e., the students’ in-
tentions remained unnoticed).
One week later, all participants were sent a second ques-
tionnaire via e-mail. They had to ﬁrst write down the two be-
havioral intentions they had listed the previous week. Then, they
indicated on exactly which days of the past week they had acted
on each intention. Finally, participants were asked to bring their
completed questionnaire to the experimenter’s ofﬁce, where they
received payment (h5) or course credit.
Results and Discussion
Overall, participants were highly committed to the identity goal
(range 56–9; M57.32, SD 51.64), and there was no
signiﬁcant difference in commitment scores between the
social-reality condition (M57.21, SD 51.64) and the no-
social-reality condition (M57.43, SD 51.08), F<1, p>.32,
d<0.16. We analyzed the number of days participants acted on
their intentions in a 2 2 analysis of variance (ANOVA) with
social reality as the between-participants factor and the two
speciﬁed behavioral intentions as the within-participants factor.
Results showed a signiﬁcant main effect of social reality, F(1,
47) 54.38, p<.05, d50.60; participants whose intentions
remained private acted on their intentions on more days of the
week (M52.70, SD 51.83) than did participants whose in-
tentions were noticed (M51.92, SD 50.78). No other effects
An apparent strength of Study 1 is that the observed negative
effects of having one’s intentions noticed cannot easily be at-
tributed to emotions that might accrue from the experimenter’s
behavior (e.g., pride). Such affective responses should vanish
quickly, whereas the effects on behavioral enactment in Study 1
were evident over a period of 1 week. An obvious weakness of
this study, however, is that enactment of intentions was assessed
In Study 2, therefore, we observed actual enactment of inten-
tions. Participants were law students who formed the behavioral
intention to make use of identity-relevant educational oppor-
tunities. This intention was then either noticed by other people
or ignored. We then observed the degree to which participants
Volume 20—Number 5 613
P.M. Gollwitzer et al.
acted on their intention when such an educational opportunity
was actually provided.
Law students at a German university were approached after a
lecture and asked to ﬁll out a three-item commitment ques-
tionnaire adapted from Study 1 (7-point answer scales were used
this time). Only participants with high commitment to becoming
a successful jurist (score 5 on each item; a5.76) were invited
to take part in the study (N532; 13 women, 19 men). The
students received h5 for their participation.
Participants were greeted individually and informed that the
experiment consisted of two independent parts. The ﬁrst was
introduced as an assessment of students’ willingness to intensify
their study of law. Participants were asked to answer a four-page
questionnaire. On the ﬁrst page, the following critical intention
item was presented: ‘‘I intend to make the best possible use of
educational opportunities in law.’’ Participants responded on a
9-point scale ranging from 1, deﬁnitely not,to9,deﬁnitely yes.In
the social-reality condition, after a participant completed the
questionnaire, the experimenter looked at this item and asked
whether the number circled on the answer scale was the one the
participant actually wanted to circle. Then the experimenter
dropped the questionnaire into a box. In the no-social-reality
condition, participants were simply asked to drop the ques-
tionnaire into a prepared box. As the questionnaire was anon-
ymous, it was clear to participants in this condition that the
experimenter would never be able to link the expressed inten-
tions to individual participants.
The experimenter then turned to the supposed second part of
the experiment, which concerned the development of a com-
puter-based study package for law students. New study mate-
rials were needed, so she had prepared 20 different criminal law
cases. Participants were asked to help her ﬁnd which cases to
select for the package by trying hard to solve each case. The
students were given 45 min to work on the prepared cases (plus
the time needed to ﬁnish the case they were working on when the
time limit was reached), but they were told that they could ﬁnish
earlier if they wished. The time participants spent working on
these cases was used to assess how successfully participants
translated their intention into behavior.
Results and Discussion
Only participants who intended to make the best possible use of
educational opportunities (score >5) were included (30 out of
the 32 original participants). Participants worked on the law
cases for less time if this behavioral intention was noticed than if
it was ignored by the experimenter (M541.52 min, SD 54.42,
vs. M545.65 min, SD 52.92), t(29) 53.26, p<.01, d51.10.
Thus, law students—all of them highly committed to the identity
goal of being a jurist—who had stated the behavioral intention to
take advantage of educational opportunities in law acted less
intensively on this intention when it was noticed by the exper-
imenter than when it was ignored.
Studies 1 and 2 were both conducted with participants who were
highly committed to the identity goal in question (i.e., psy-
chologist in Study 1, jurist in Study 2). As only individuals who
are highly committed to an identity goal can be expected to
experience self-completeness by accumulating identity symbols
(Wicklund & Gollwitzer, 1982), it follows that noncommitted
individuals should not show reduced intention enactment
whenever their identity-related behavioral intentions are no-
ticed by other people. Study 3 tested this hypothesis in two ways:
First, we compared students who wanted to become clinical
psychologists and those who wanted to become other types of
psychologists to determine whether they differed in how social
reality affected their enactment of behavioral intentions in the
service of the identity goal of clinical psychologist. Second, we
assessed the strength of participants’ commitment to the identity
goal of becoming a clinical psychologist. We decided to assess
rather than manipulate strength of identity-goal commitment, as
strong identity commitments are not easily created on the spot,
but often take years to develop (Gollwitzer & Kirchhof, 1998).
Sixty-three psychology students at a German university (40
women, 23 men) participated for course credit. They were in-
formed that they would take part in two independent studies.
The ﬁrst study was described as exploring students’ willingness
to intensify their studies and involved answering several short
questionnaires. The ﬁrst questionnaire assessed commitment to
the identity goal of becoming a clinical psychologist. The ﬁrst
item asked, ‘‘There are different ﬁelds of specialization in psy-
chology. Which one are you trying to pursue?’’ Response options
were ‘‘child,’’ ‘‘industrial,’’ ‘‘clinical,’’ ‘‘experimental,’’ ‘‘math-
ematical,’’ and ‘‘undecided.’’ Participants who answered ‘‘clin-
ical’’ were assumed to possess this identity goal, whereas the
others were not. We assumed that strongly committed individ-
uals would be willing to take on hardships (e.g., moving to an-
other town) en route to attaining an identity goal (Gollwitzer &
Kirchhof, 1998), and the subsequent strength-of-commitment
item asked, ‘‘Would you switch universities in order to receive an
optimal education in your ﬁeld of interest?’’ Participants re-
sponded to this question using a 5-point scale ranging from 1,
No, I would never do that,to5,Yes, I would do that for sure.
A second questionnaire (one item per page) was introduced as
an inventory concerning ways of intensifying one’s studies. The
critical behavioral-intention question was the only item on the
ﬁrst page: ‘‘I intend to watch videotapes of therapy sessions to
learn more about therapeutic techniques.’’ The response scale
for this item ranged from 1, deﬁnitely no,to5,deﬁnitely yes.
614 Volume 20—Number 5
Intentions as Symbols
Upon completion of this questionnaire, participants in the so-
cial-reality condition were told that because of incomplete re-
sponses of prior participants, only the question on the ﬁrst page
of the questionnaire could be analyzed. The experimenter then
studied that page, tore it off, and handed the remaining pages
back to the participant. In the no-social-reality condition, the
experimenter gave the same cover story about missing data, but
applied it to all the items on the questionnaire; then she returned
the entire questionnaire without looking at it.
Finally, the experimenter introduced participants to the sec-
ond experimenter, who told them that she was trying to ﬁnd out
the extent to which making eye contact affects the quality of an
interaction. She explained that she had prepared a video
showing a conversation between a therapist and a client. Par-
ticipants’ task was to count the instances of making eye contact
and to rate the quality of interaction after each minute of the
conversation. Participants were told that the video lasted 40
min, but they should feel free to stop the video whenever they
Results and Discussion
Thirty-one participants indicated that clinical psychology was
the ﬁeld they wanted to pursue; 32 participants indicated other
ﬁelds. Because only participants with strong behavioral inten-
tions were of interest, we excluded 6 participants (2 aspiring
clinical psychologists and 4 no-goal participants) who scored 4
or less on the item ‘‘I intend to watch videotapes of therapy
sessions to learn more about therapeutic techniques.’’ A 2
(clinical-psychologist identity goal: present vs. absent) 2
(social reality: present vs. absent) ANOVA on the amount of time
spent watching the therapy video yielded the predicted inter-
action effect, F(1, 53) 53.95, p5.05, d50.95; only the
performance of aspiring clinical psychologists was affected by
social reality. As expected, aspiring clinical psychologists
whose behavioral intention to study videotaped therapy sessions
had been noticed by the experimenter invested less time in
watching the video than did aspiring clinical psychologists
whose intentions remained unnoticed (M529.51 min, SD 5
6.72, vs. M534.22 min, SD 57.19), t(28) 51.82, p5.04 (one-
tailed), d50.68. None of the other comparisons were signiﬁcant
(all ts<0.15, ps>.88, ds<0.06).
In an additional analysis, we examined whether strength of
commitment to the identity goal, as measured by the mobility
item, moderated the effect of social reality among the aspiring
clinical psychologists (weak commitment 3, strong commit-
ment 4). A 2 (strength of commitment: strong vs. weak) 2
(social reality: present vs. absent) ANOVA revealed a main ef-
fect of social reality, F(1, 25) 55.50, p<.03, d50.94, that was
qualiﬁed by a signiﬁcant interaction with strength of commit-
ment, F(1, 25) 55.04, p<.04, d50.90. As expected (see Table
1), participants with a strong commitment to the identity goal of
becoming a clinical psychologist spent less time (more than 11
min less) studying the videotaped therapy session if they were in
the social-reality condition than if they were in the no-social-
reality condition, t(11) 55.02, p<.001, d52.96; in contrast,
participants with weak commitment to the identity goal spent
close to the same amount of time studying the therapy session no
matter whether they had or had not received social recognition
for their behavioral intention to study videotapes of therapy
sessions (there was only a 13.2-s difference between groups; t5
0.09, p5.93, d50.04).
SCT (Wicklund & Gollwitzer, 1982) postulates that public rec-
ognition of an identity-relevant symbol engenders a sense of
having attained the aspired-to identity goal (i.e., self-com-
pleteness). As Studies 1 through 3 suggest that identity-relevant
behavioral intentions do qualify as identity symbols, it follows
that social recognition of such intentions should also lead to a
heightened sense of completeness. In Study 4, we tested this
hypothesis with law students committed to becoming successful
Twenty-four ﬁrst-year and second-year law students (10 women,
14 men) from a German university participated in this experi-
ment in exchange for h5. They were recruited at the end of a law
Upon arrival at the laboratory, participants met the experi-
menter and two other students (actually confederates) who were
described as fellow law students. The experimenter explained to
each group that he was conducting a study on law students’
intentions to advance their careers and then asked participants
to complete a questionnaire. The questionnaire comprised two
items. The ﬁrst item measured participants’ commitment to
becoming a lawyer: ‘‘How important is a successful career in law
to you personally?’’ Responses were made on a 7-point scale
ranging from 1, not at all important,to7,very important. The
second item asked participants to write out their three most
important behavioral intentions with respect to the goal of be-
coming a successful jurist (e.g., ‘‘I will read law periodicals
regularly’’). The importance of each intention also had to be
Mean Time Spent Studying the Videotaped Therapy Session (in
Minutes) in Study 3
Commitment to identity
goal of clinical psychologist
Strong 27.95 (3.11) 39.17 (4.51)
Weak 30.68 (3.62) 30.90 (6.24)
Note. Standard deviations are given in parentheses.
Volume 20—Number 5 615
P.M. Gollwitzer et al.
rated on a 7-point scale. Once participants had completed the
questionnaire, the experimenter asked them to either rate the
attractiveness of 10 pictures of landscapes (the no-social-reality
condition) or tell him and the rest of the group what intentions
they had written down (the social-reality condition). In the so-
cial-reality condition, the participants always reported their
intentions ﬁrst; the confederates then reported behavioral in-
tentions derived from prior participants.
Next, a second questionnaire was handed out. This ques-
tionnaire showed a 14-cm line, above which were aligned ﬁve
pictures of the same member of the German Supreme Court
wearing the characteristic attire. The pictures varied in size,
ranging from small (1.5 1 cm) to large (3.6 2.4 cm). These
size gradations provided a visual analogue of the extent of
possessing the identity of being a jurist. Participants responded
to the item ‘‘How much do you feel like a jurist right now?’’ by
marking the respective point on the line. This self-assessment
manekin (SAM) rating procedure facilitates quick, nonreﬂective
self-evaluations (Bradley & Lang, 1994).
Results and Discussion
The commitment of students in the social-reality condition (M5
6.00, SD 51.49) did not differ from that of students in the no-
social-reality condition (M56.08, SD 50.67), t(21) 50.17,
p5.68, d50.07. Ratings of the importance of the listed in-
tentions were high and also did not differ between conditions
(M56.10, SD 50.55, vs. M56.00, SD 50.55), t(21) 50.42,
We ﬁrst checked the validity of our measure of felt com-
pleteness. Indeed, more semesters of law education was asso-
ciated with stronger feelings of completeness as a jurist (r5.54,
p5.005). In a hierarchical regression analysis, the social-
reality manipulation was signiﬁcantly associated with feelings
of self-completeness even after number of semesters of law edu-
cation had been taken into account (bs5.29 and .45 for edu-
cation and condition, respectively, ps<.05), and inclusion of
this variable enhanced the ﬁt of the model (DR
5.72, p<.03). As we predicted, participants felt closer to the
identity goal of becoming a jurist when their behavioral inten-
tions were recognized than when those intentions remained pri-
vate (Ms54.19 and 3.10, respectively).
When other people take notice of one’s identity-relevant be-
havioral intentions, one’s performance of the intended behaviors
is compromised. This effect occurs both when the intentions are
experimenter supplied and when they are self-generated, and is
observed in both immediate performance and performance
measured over a period of 1 week. It does not emerge when
people are not committed to the superordinate identity goal.
Other people’s taking notice of one’s identity-relevant intentions
apparently engenders a premature sense of completeness re-
garding the identity goal.
Fishbein (1980) and Ajzen (1991) showed that the strength of
a behavioral intention determines how well it is translated into
behavior (Webb & Sheeran, 2006). Moreover, a substantial lit-
erature on moderators of intention-behavior relations (e.g.,
certainty, temporal stability) has developed (Cooke & Sheeran,
2004; Sheeran, 2002). Interestingly, however, previous research
has not explored what psychological processes may intervene
between the formation of a behavioral intention and its enact-
ment. The present studies indicate that the simple matter of
identity-relevant behavioral intentions becoming public un-
dermines the realization of those intentions.
The present research is also unique in its attempt to bring
back Lewin’s work on intentions as it applies to the actual re-
alization of intentions. Most of the current research based on
Lewin’s (1926) goal theory focuses on the activation level of the
mental representation of a person’s intention (following Zei-
garnik, 1927). For instance, research has shown that the ac-
cessibility of goal-related constructs is increased as long as the
goal is active, that goal fulﬁllment inhibits accessibility of goal-
related constructs, and that these effects are proportional to the
strength of commitment to the goal (Fo
¨rster, Liberman, & Hig-
gins, 2005; Goschke & Kuhl, 1993; Marsh, Hicks, & Bink,
Our ﬁndings are also important from an applied perspective.
Given that the effect is limited to committed individuals—those
who are most eager to reach their identity goals—an important
question is how these individuals might try to escape this effect.
Future research might address this question by exploring vari-
ous routes. First, might it sufﬁce to increase the need for con-
sistency (Cialdini & Trost, 1998) by attending to relevant norms?
Or is it also necessary to increase perceived accountability
(Lerner & Tetlock, 1999) by considering relevant attributes of
the audience (e.g., power) or by specifying one’s behavioral in-
tention in a particular way (e.g., spelling out speciﬁc frequency
or quality standards vs. stating only that one wants to do one’s
best; Locke & Latham, 2002) so that the audience can more
easily check on its enactment? Second, might it also be effective
for one to furnish a behavioral intention with a plan for how to
enact it—that is, to form a corresponding implementation in-
tention (e.g., ‘‘If situation Xis encountered, then I will perform
the intended behavior Y’’; Gollwitzer, 1999; Gollwitzer &
Sheeran, 2006)? As such if-then plans delegate the control of a
person’s behavior to situational cues, the intended behavior
should be executed when the critical cue arises, whether or not
the expression of the behavioral intention had been acknowl-
edged by other people. Third, recent research by Fishbach and
her colleagues (Fishbach & Dhar, 2005; Koo & Fishbach, 2008)
suggests that interpreting a behavioral performance in terms of
indicating commitment to a goal enhances further goal striving,
whereas conceiving of a performance in terms of progress toward
616 Volume 20—Number 5
Intentions as Symbols
a goal reduces further goal striving. This implies that a behav-
ioral intention worded to indicate a strong commitment to the
identity goal (e.g., ‘‘I want to write a paper to become a great
scientist’’) should be less negatively affected by social reality
than a behavioral intention that implies progress toward the
identity goal (e.g., ‘‘I intend to write a paper, as is done by great
Finally, from a goal-systems (Kruglanski et al., 2002) or goal-
hierarchy (Vallacher & Wegner, 1987) perspective on action
control, it stands to reason that any striving for goals—and not
just identity goals—that can be attained by various behavioral
routes (means) is vulnerable to the negative effects of social
reality on the enactment of behavioral intentions. If a person is
highly committed to a superordinate goal, and if public recog-
nition of a behavioral intention specifying the use of one route to
the goal engenders a sense of goal attainment, then the enact-
ment of this very intention should be hampered. Recent research
by Fishbach, Dhar, and Zhang (2006) is in line with this rea-
soning, showing that success on a subgoal (e.g., eating healthy
meals) in the service of a superordinate goal (i.e., keeping in
shape) reduces striving for alternative subgoals (e.g., going to
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