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CHAPTER 9
Planning Promotes Goal Striving
PETER M. GOLLWITZER
GABRIELE OETTINGEN
Determining the factors that promote successful goal striving is one of the fundamental
questions studied by self- regulation and motivation researchers (Bargh, Gollwitzer,
& Oettingen, 2010; Gollwitzer & Moskowitz, 1996; Oettingen & Gollwitzer, 2001). A
number of theories, and supporting empirical data, suggest that the type of goal chosen
and the commitment to that goal are important determinants in whether an individual
carries out the behaviors necessary for goal attainment (e.g., Ajzen, 1985; Bandura, 1997;
Carver & Scheier, 1998; Elliot, 2008; Locke & Latham, 2006; Molden & Dweck, 2006;
Oettingen, Pak, & Schnetter, 2001). Within these models, choosing or accepting a goal
or standard is the central act of will in the pursuit of goals. We agree with this conten-
tion but argue in this chapter that further acts of will should facilitate goal attainment, in
particular, when goal striving is confronted with implemental problems (e.g., difficulties
getting started because of failure to use opportunities to do so; sticking to ongoing goal
striving in the face of distractions, temptations, and competing goals). Such acts of will
can take the form of making plans that specify when, where, and how an instrumental
goal- directed response is to be enacted. More specifically, the person may take control
over (i.e., self- regulate) goal striving by making if–then plans (i.e., form implementation
intentions) that specify an anticipated critical situation and link it to an instrumental
goal- directed response.
IMPLEMENTATION INTENTIONS: STRATEGIC AUTOMATICITY IN GOAL STRIVING
Gollwitzer (1993, 1999) has proposed a distinction between goal intentions and imple-
mentation intentions. Goal intentions (goals) have the structure of “I intend to reach
Z!” whereby Z may relate to a certain outcome or behavior to which the individual feels
committed. Implementation intentions (plans) have the structure of “If situation X is
Planning Promotes Goal Striving 163
encountered, then I will perform the goal- directed response Y!” Both goal and imple-
mentation intentions are set in an act of will: The former specifies the intention to meet a
goal or standard; the latter refers to the intention to perform a plan. Commonly, imple-
mentation intentions are formed in the service of goal intentions because they specify the
where, when, and how of a respective goal- directed response. For instance, a possible
implementation intention in the service of the goal intention to eat healthy food could
link a suitable situational context (e.g., one’s order is taken at a restaurant) to an appro-
priate behavior (e.g., asking for a low-fat meal). As a consequence, a strong mental link is
established between the critical cue of the waiter taking the order and the goal- directed
response of asking for a low-fat meal.
Accordingly, to form an implementation intention, one needs to identify a future
goal- relevant situational cue (e.g., a good opportunity to act, an obstacle to goal pursuit)
and link a related goal- directed response to that cue (e.g., how to respond to the oppor-
tunity, how to overcome the obstacle). Whereas goal intentions merely specify desired
end states (“I want to achieve goal X!”), the if- component of an implementation intention
specifies when and where one wants to act on this goal, and the then- component of the
plan specifies how this will be done. Implementation intentions thus delegate control over
the initiation of the intended goal- directed behavior to a specified opportunity by creat-
ing a strong link between a situational cue and a goal- directed response.
Implementation intentions have been found to help people close the gap between
setting goals and actually realizing these goals. Evidence that forming if–then plans
enhances rates of goal attainment and behavioral performance has now been obtained
in several studies. A recent meta- analysis (Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006) involving over
8,000 participants in 94 independent studies revealed a medium-to-large effect size (d
= 0.65) of implementation intentions on goal achievement in a variety of domains (e.g.,
interpersonal, environmental, health) on top of the effects of mere goal intentions. The
size of the implementation intention effect is noteworthy given that goal intentions by
themselves already have a facilitating effect on behavior enactment (Webb & Sheeran,
2006).
Mechanisms of Implementation Intention Effects
Research on the underlying mechanisms of implementation intention effects has discov-
ered that implementation intentions facilitate goal attainment on the basis of psychologi-
cal mechanisms that relate to the anticipated situation (specified in the if-part of the plan),
the intended behavior (specified in the then-part of the plan), and the mental link forged
between the if-part and the then-part of the plan. Because forming an implementation
intention implies the selection of a critical future situation, the mental representation of
this situation becomes highly activated and hence more accessible (Gollwitzer, 1999).
This heightened accessibility of the if-part of the plan has been observed in several stud-
ies testing this hypothesis by using different experimental paradigms. For instance, Webb
and Sheeran (2004, Studies 2 and 3) observed that implementation intentions improve
cue detection (fewer misses and more hits), without stimulating erroneous responses to
similar cues (false alarms and correct rejections). Using a dichotic listening paradigm,
Achtziger, Bayer, and Gollwitzer (2010) found that words describing the anticipated criti-
cal situation were highly disruptive to focused attention in implementation- intention par-
ticipants compared to mere goal- intention participants (i.e., the shadowing performance
164 COGNITIVE, PHYSIOLOGICAL, AND NEUROLOGICAL DIMENSIONS
of the attended materials decreased in implementation- intention participants). Moreover,
in a cued recall experiment they observed that participants more effectively recalled the
available situational opportunities to attain a set goal given that these opportunities had
been specified in if–then links (i.e., in implementation intentions).
In a study by Parks-Stamm, Gollwitzer, and Oettingen (2007), participants had to
identify five- letter words in a recorded story that was quickly read aloud. Before listening
to the story, all participants familiarized themselves with the two most common five- letter
words Laura and mouse. In the implementation- intention condition, they additionally
included these words in if–then plans (“If I hear the word Laura, then I will immediately
press the L; if I hear the word mouse, then I will immediately press the M”). It was pre-
dicted and found that implementation intentions would not only increase performance
in response to the two critical five- letter words but also inhibit responses to the remain-
ing five- letter words. Finally, Wieber and Sassenberg (2006) wondered whether critical
cues would attract attention when they occurred during the pursuit of an unrelated goal
(similar to the dichotic listening study by Achtziger et al. [2010] reported earlier). In two
studies, the disruption of attention through implementation intentions was investigated
by presenting critical situations (stimuli that were part of an implementation intention for
an unrelated task) as task- irrelevant distractors along with task- relevant stimuli in a so-
called flanker paradigm (Eriksen & Eriksen, 1974). In the first study, participants had to
perform a categorization task (flowers vs. insects). Half of the participants formed imple-
mentation intentions (“If I see the word flower, then I will press the left control key!” and
“If I see insect, then I will press the right control key!”). The other half of the participants
formed control intentions (mere goal intentions; e.g., “I will respond to flower as quickly
and accurately as possible!” and “I will respond to insect as quickly and accurately as
possible!” and “I will press the left control key as quickly and accurately as possible!”
and “I will press the right control key as quickly and accurately as possible!”). Next,
participants worked on the ostensibly unrelated flanker task, in which they had to make
word versus nonword decisions while both neutral and critical stimuli were presented as
task- irrelevant distractors. The results indicated that the presence of a critical stimulus
slowed down participants’ responses; however, this effect only occurred when they had
formed implementation intentions, not when they had formed mere goal intentions. In
the second study, these findings were replicated using a flanker task with vowel versus
consonant classifications.
There are even some studies testing whether the heightened accessibility of the men-
tal representation of critical cues as specified in an implementation intention mediates
the attainment of the respective goal intention. For instance, Aarts, Dijksterhuis, and
Midden (1999), using a lexical decision task, found that the formation of implementa-
tion intentions led to faster lexical decision times for those words that described the
specified critical situation. Furthermore, the heightened accessibility of the critical situ-
ation (as measured by faster lexical decision responses) mediated the beneficial effects of
implementation intentions on goal attainment. More recent studies indicate that forming
implementation intentions not only heightens the activation (and thus the accessibility)
of the mental presentation of the situational cues specified in the if- component but it
also forges a strong associative link between the mental representation of the specified
opportunity and the mental representation of the specified response (Webb & Sheeran,
2007, 2008). These associative links seem to be quite stable over time (Papies, Aarts, &
de Vries, 2009), and they allow for priming the mental representation of the specified
Planning Promotes Goal Striving 165
response (the plan’s then- component) by subliminal presentation of the specified critical
situational cue (if- component) (Webb & Sheeran, 2007). Moreover, mediation analyses
suggest that cue accessibility and the strength of the cue– response link together mediate
the impact of implementation intention formation on goal attainment (Webb & Sheeran,
2007, 2008).
Gollwitzer (1999) suggested that the upshot of the strong associative (critical situa-
tion goal- directed response) links created by forming implementation intentions is that—
once the critical cue is encountered—the initiation of the goal- directed response speci-
fied in then- component of the implementation intention exhibits features of automaticity,
including immediacy, efficiency, and redundancy of conscious intent. When people have
formed an implementation intention, they can act in situ, without having to deliberate
on when and how they should act. Evidence that if–then planners act quickly (Gollwit-
zer & Brandstätter, 1997, Experiment 3), deal effectively with cognitive demands (i.e.,
speed-up effects are still evidenced under high cognitive load; Brandstätter, Lengfelder,
& Gollwitzer, 2001), and do not need consciously to intend to act in the critical moment
is consistent with this idea (i.e., implementation intention effects are observed even when
the critical cue is presented subliminally [Bayer, Achtziger, Gollwitzer, & Moskowitz,
2009] or when the respective goal is activated outside of awareness [Sheeran, Webb, &
Gollwitzer, 2005, Study 2]).
With respect to immediacy of action initiation, for instance, Gollwitzer and Brand-
stätter (1997, Study 3) observed that participants who had been induced to form imple-
mentation intentions that specified viable opportunities for presenting counterarguments
to a series of racist remarks made by a confederate did initiate counterarguments sooner
than participants who had formed the mere goal intention to counterargue. To test the
postulated efficiency of action initiation, Brandtstätter and colleagues (2001, Studies
3 and 4) used a go/no-go task embedded as a secondary task in a dual-task paradigm.
Participants formed the goal intention to press a button as fast as possible if numbers
appeared on the computer screen, but not if letters were presented. Participants in the
implementation- intention condition additionally made the plan to press the response but-
ton particularly fast if the number 3 was presented. Implementation- intention partici-
pants showed a substantial increase in speed of responding to the number 3 compared to
the control group, regardless of whether the simultaneously demanded primary task (a
memorization task in Study 3 and a tracking task in Study 4) was either easy or difficult to
perform. Apparently, the immediacy of responding induced by implementation intentions
is also efficient in the sense that it does not require much in the way of cognitive resources
(i.e., can be performed even when demanding dual tasks have to be performed at the
same time). Finally, with respect to the postulated redundancy of conscious intent, Bayer
and colleagues (2009) conducted experiments in which the critical situation specified in
the if- component was presented subliminally. Results indicated that subliminal presenta-
tion of the critical situation led to a speed-up in responding in implementation- intention
but not in mere goal- intention participants. These effects suggest that when planned via
implementation intentions, the initiation of goal- directed responses becomes triggered by
the presence of the critical situational cue, without the need for further conscious intent.
The postulated and observed component processes underlying implementation inten-
tion effects (enhanced cue accessibility, strong cue– response links, automation of respond-
ing) mean that if–then planning allows people to see and to seize good opportunities to
move toward their goals. Fashioning an if–then plan thus strategically automates goal
166 COGNITIVE, PHYSIOLOGICAL, AND NEUROLOGICAL DIMENSIONS
striving; people intentionally make if–then plans that delegate control of goal- directed
behavior to preselected situational cues, with the explicit purpose of reaching their goals.
This delegation hypothesis has recently been tested by studies that collected brain data
(electroencephalography [EEG], functional magnetic resonance imaging [fMRI]).
Schweiger Gallo, Keil, McCulloch, Rockstroh, and Gollwitzer (2009, Study 3) used
dense-array EEG. Behavioral data indicated that implementation intentions specifying
an ignore response in the then- component helped control fear in response to pictures of
spiders in participants with spider phobia; importantly, the obtained electrocortical cor-
relates revealed that those participants who bolstered their goal intention to stay calm
with an ignore- implementation intention showed significantly reduced early activity in
the visual cortex in response to spider pictures, as reflected in a smaller P1 (assessed at
120 milliseconds [msec] after a spider picture was presented). This suggests that imple-
mentation intentions indeed lead to strategic automation of the specified goal- directed
response (in the present case, an ignore response) when the critical cue (in the present
case, a spider picture) is encountered, as conscious effortful action initiation is known to
take longer than 120 msec (i.e., at least 300 msec; see Bargh & Chartrand, 2000).
Further support for the delegation hypothesis was obtained in an fMRI study
reported by Gilbert, Gollwitzer, Cohen, Oettingen, and Burgess (2009), in which par-
ticipants had to perform a prospective memory task on the basis of either goal or imple-
mentation intention instructions. Acting on the basis of goal intentions was associated
with brain activity in the lateral rostral prefrontal cortex, whereas acting on the basis of
implementation intentions was associated with brain activity in the medial rostral pre-
frontal cortex. Brain activity in the latter area is known to be associated with bottom-up
(stimulus) control of action, whereas brain activity in the former area is known to be
related to top-down (goal) control of action (Burgess, Dumontheil, & Gilbert, 2007).
Finally, the delegation hypothesis concerning the operation of implementation inten-
tions has also been supported by studies using critical samples—that is, individuals with
poor self- regulatory abilities, such as people with schizophrenia or substance abuse disor-
ders (Brandstätter et al., 2001, Studies 1 and 2), people with frontal lobe damage (Leng-
felder & Gollwitzer, 2001), and children with attention- deficit/hyperactivity disorder
(ADHD) (Gawrilow & Gollwitzer, 2008; Paul et al., 2007). For instance, Brandstätter
and colleagues (2001, Study 1) asked hospitalized opiate addicts under withdrawal to
write a short curriculum vitae (CV) before the end of the day; whereas half of the par-
ticipants formed relevant implementation intentions (they specified when and where they
would start to write what), the other half (control group) formed irrelevant implementa-
tion intentions (when and where they would eat what for lunch). Eighty percent of the
relevant implementation- intention participants had written a short CV at the end of the
day, whereas none of the participants with the irrelevant implementation intention suc-
ceeded in doing so.
Implementation intentions have also been found to benefit children with ADHD, who
are known to have difficulties with tasks that require response inhibition (e.g., go/no-go
tasks). For example, it was observed that the response inhibition performance in the pres-
ence of stop signals can be improved in children with ADHD by forming implementation
intentions (Gawrilow & Gollwitzer, 2008, Studies 1 and 2). This improved response inhi-
bition is reflected in electrocortical data as well (Paul et al., 2007). Typically, the P300
component evoked by no-go stimuli has greater amplitude than the P300 evoked by go
stimuli. This difference is less pronounced in children with ADHD. Paul and colleagues
Planning Promotes Goal Striving 167
(2007) found that if–then plans improved response inhibition and increased the P300
difference (no-go/go) in children with ADHD.
Potential Alternative Mechanisms
Additional process mechanisms to the stimulus perception and response initiation pro-
cesses documented in the findings described earlier have been explored. For instance,
furnishing goals with implementation intentions might produce an increase in goal com-
mitment or self- efficacy, which in turn causes heightened goal attainment. However, this
hypothesis has not received any empirical support. For instance, when Brandstätter and
colleagues (2001, Study 1) analyzed whether heroin addicts suffering from withdrawal
benefit from forming implementation intentions to submit a newly composed CV before
the end of the day, they also measured participants’ commitment to do so. Whereas the
majority of the implementation- intention participants succeeded in handing in the CV in
time, none of the goal- intention participants succeeded in this task. These two groups,
however, did not differ in terms of their goal commitment (“I feel committed to compose
a CV” and “I have to complete this task”), measured after the goal- and implementation-
intention instructions had been administered. This finding was replicated with young
adults who participated in a professional development workshop (Oettingen, Hönig, &
Gollwitzer, 2000, Study 2), and analogous results were reported in research on the effects
of implementation intentions on meeting health promotion and disease prevention goals
(e.g., Orbell, Hodgkins, & Sheeran, 1997). Indeed, a recent meta- analysis of 66 imple-
mentation intention studies that assessed goal commitment or self- efficacy after the for-
mation of if–then plans revealed negligible effects on both of these variables (Webb &
Sheeran, 2008); accordingly, neither an increase in goal commitment nor self- efficacy
qualify as potential mediators of implementation intention effects.
IMPLEMENTATION INTENTIONS AND OVERCOMING
THE TYPICAL PROBLEMS OF GOAL STRIVING
Successful goal striving is not secured solely by strongly committing oneself to appropri-
ate goals (i.e., goals that are desirable and also feasible). There is always the second issue
of implementing a chosen goal (i.e., goal striving), and one wonders what people can do
to enhance their chances of being successful at this phase of goal pursuit. The answer we
suggest in this chapter is the following: People need to prepare themselves in advance, so
that their chances to overcome arising difficulties of goal implementation are kept high.
But what are these difficulties or problems? At least four problems stand out. These prob-
lems include getting started with goal striving, staying on track, calling a halt, and not
overextending oneself. For all of these problems, the self- regulation strategy of forming
implementation intentions has been shown to be beneficial (see meta- analysis by Gollwit-
zer & Sheeran, 2006).
Given that forming implementation intentions automates goal striving, people who
form implementation intentions should actually have it easier when they are confronted
with these four central problems of goal implementation. Indeed, numerous studies sug-
gest that problems of getting started on one’s goals can be solved effectively by forming
implementation intentions. For instance, Gollwitzer and Brandstätter (1997, Study 2)
168 COGNITIVE, PHYSIOLOGICAL, AND NEUROLOGICAL DIMENSIONS
analyzed a goal intention (i.e., writing a report about how the participants spent Christ-
mas Eve) that had to be performed at a time when people are commonly busy with other
things (i.e., during the subsequent 2 days, which are family holidays in Europe). Still,
research participants who had furnished their goal intention with an implementation
intention that specified when, where, and how they wanted to get started on this project
were about three times as likely actually to write the report as mere goal- intention partici-
pants. Similarly, Oettingen and colleagues (2000, Study 3) observed that implementation
intentions helped students to act on their task goals (i.e., performing math homework) on
time (e.g., at 10:00 A.M. every Wednesday over the next 4 weeks).
Other studies have examined the ability of implementation intentions to foster striv-
ing toward goals involving behaviors that are somewhat unpleasant to perform. For
instance, goals to perform regular breast examinations (Orbell et al., 1997) or cervical
cancer screenings (Sheeran & Orbell, 2000), to resume functional activity after joint
replacement surgery (Orbell & Sheeran, 2000), to eat a low-fat diet (Armitage, 2004), to
recycle (Holland, Aarts, & Langendam, 2006), and to engage in physical exercise (Milne,
Orbell, & Sheeran, 2002) were all more readily acted upon when people had developed
implementation intentions—even though there is an initial reluctance to execute these
behaviors. Moreover, implementation intentions were associated with goal attainment
in domains where it is easy to forget to act (e.g., regular intake of vitamin pills: Sheeran
& Orbell, 1999; the signing of worksheets by older adults: Chasteen, Park, & Schwarz,
2001).
But many goals cannot be accomplished by a simple, discrete, one-shot action
because they require that people keep striving over an extended period of time. Such
staying on track may become very difficult when certain internal stimuli (e.g., being anx-
ious, tired, overburdened) or external stimuli (e.g., temptations, distractions) interfere
with and potentially derail ongoing goal pursuit. Implementation intentions can suppress
the negative influence of interferences from outside the person (e.g., disruptions by attrac-
tive video shows; Gollwitzer & Schaal, 1998). These suppression- oriented implementa-
tion intentions may take very different forms. For instance, if a person wants to avoid
being unfriendly to a friend who is known to make outrageous requests, she can form
suppression- oriented implementation intentions, such as And if my friend approaches me
with an outrageous request, then I will not respond accordingly!” The then- component
of suppression- oriented implementation intentions does not have to be worded in terms
of not showing the critical behavior; it may alternatively specify an antagonistic behavior
(“ . . . , then I will respond in a friendly manner!”) or focus on ignoring the critical cue (
. . . , then I’ll ignore her request!”).
Interestingly, suppression- oriented implementation intentions can be used not only
to shield ongoing goal pursuits from disruptive external stimuli but also to curb the
negative effects of interfering inner states. Achtziger, Gollwitzer, and Sheeran (2008)
report two field experiments concerned with dieting (i.e., reduce snacking; Study 1) and
athletic goals (i.e., win a competitive tennis match; Study 2), in which goals were shielded
by suppression- oriented implementation intentions geared toward controlling potentially
interfering inner states (i.e., cravings for junk food in Study 1, and disruptive thoughts,
feelings, and physiological states in Study 2). An alternative way of using implementation
intentions to protect ongoing goal striving from derailment is to form implementation
intentions geared toward stabilizing the ongoing goal pursuit at hand (Bayer, Gollwitzer,
& Achtziger, 2010). Using, again, the example of a person approached by her friend with
Planning Promotes Goal Striving 169
an outrageous request, let us assume that the recipient of the request is tired or irritated,
and thus particularly likely to respond in an unfriendly manner. If this person has stipu-
lated in advance in an implementation intention what she will converse about with her
friend, the interaction may come off as planned, and being tired or irritated should fail to
affect the person’s behavior toward her friend.
Bayer and colleagues (2010) tested this hypothesis in a series of experiments in
which participants were asked to make plans (i.e., form implementation intentions) or
not regarding their performance on an assigned task. Prior to beginning the task, par-
ticipants’ self- states were manipulated, so that the task at hand became more difficult
(e.g., a state of self- definitional incompleteness prior to a task that required perspective
taking: Gollwitzer & Wicklund, 1985; a good mood prior to a task that required evalua-
tion of others nonstereotypically: Bless & Fiedler, 1995; and a state of ego depletion prior
to solving difficult anagrams: Baumeister, 2000; Muraven, Tice, & Baumeister, 1998).
The results suggested that the induced critical self- states negatively affected task perfor-
mance only for those participants who had not planned out work on the task at hand via
implementation intentions (i.e., had only set themselves the goal to come up with a great
performance). In other words, implementation intentions that spelled out how to perform
the task at hand were effective in protecting the individual from the negative effects asso-
ciated with the induced detrimental self- states.
These findings provide a new perspective on the psychology of self- regulation. Com-
monly, effective self- regulation is understood in terms of strengthening the self, so that
the self can meet the challenge of being a powerful executive agent (Baumeister, Heath-
erton, & Tice, 1994). Therefore, most research on goal- directed self- regulation focuses
on strengthening the self in such a way that threats and irritations become less likely,
or on restoring an already threatened or irritated self. It is important to recognize that
all of these maneuvers focus on changing the self, so that it becomes a better execu-
tive. The findings of Bayer and colleagues (2010) suggest a perspective on goal- directed
self- regulation that focuses on facilitating action control without changing the self. It
assumes that action control becomes easier if a person’s behavior is directly controlled by
situational cues, and that forming implementation intentions achieves such direct action
control. As this mode of action control circumvents the self, it no longer matters whether
the self is threatened or secure, agitated or calm because the self is effectively discon-
nected from its influence on behavior. The research by Bayer and colleagues supports this
line of reasoning by demonstrating that task performance (i.e., taking the perspective of
another person, judging people in a nonstereotypical manner, solving difficult anagrams)
does not suffer any impairment because of the respective detrimental self- states (i.e., self-
definitional incompleteness, mood, and ego depletion, respectively) if performing these
tasks has been planned out in advance via implementation intentions.
The self- regulatory problem of calling a halt to a futile goal striving (i.e., disengag-
ing from a chosen but noninstrumental means or from a chosen goal that has become
unfeasible or undesirable) can also be ameliorated by forming implementation intentions.
People often fail to disengage readily from chosen means and goals that turn out to be
faulty because of a strong self- justification motive (i.e., we tend to adhere to the irratio-
nal belief that decisions we have made deliberately must be good; Brockner, 1992). Such
escalation effects of sticking with a chosen means or goal, even if negative feedback on
goal progress mounts, are reduced effectively, however, by the use of implementation
intentions. These implementation intentions only have to specify receiving negative feed-
170 COGNITIVE, PHYSIOLOGICAL, AND NEUROLOGICAL DIMENSIONS
back as the critical cue in the if- component and switching to available alternative means
or goals as the appropriate response in the then- component (Henderson, Gollwitzer, &
Oettingen, 2007).
Finally, the assumption that implementation intentions subject behavior to the direct
control of situational cues (i.e., strategic automation of goal striving; Gollwitzer, 1999)
implies that the person does not have to exert deliberate effort when behavior is controlled
via implementation intentions. As a consequence, the self should not become depleted
(Muraven & Baumeister, 2000) when task performance is regulated by implementa-
tion intentions; thus, for individuals using implementation intentions, not overextend-
ing themselves should become easier. Indeed, using different ego- depletion paradigms,
research participants who used implementation intentions to self- regulate in one task did
not show reduced self- regulatory capacity in a subsequent task (e.g., Webb & Sheeran,
2003).
WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH:
LIMITS OF ACTION CONTROL BY IMPLEMENTATION INTENTIONS?
As we pointed out earlier in the section on what implementation intentions are and how
they work, implementation intentions can help people to overcome the common problems
of goal striving (i.e., getting started, staying on track, disengage when things have been
loused up, and preventing ego depletion). However, it would speak for the self- regulation
strategy of if–then planning if it even fares well under conditions in which action is
determined primarily by factors that do not appear to be amenable to self- regulation.
This question and a respective recent line of research have been stimulated by Aristotle’s
concept of akrasia (lack of willpower) because any willful strategy of goal striving (e.g.,
if–then planning) has to prove itself under conditions in which people commonly fail to
demonstrate willpower. Such conditions are manifold; thus, this research has focused
on the following three situations: (1) situations in which a person’s knowledge and skills
constrain performance, such as taking academic tests; (2) situations in which an oppo-
nent’s behavior limits one’s performance, such as negotiation settings; and (3) situations
in which the wanted behavior (e.g., no littering) runs into conflict with habits favoring an
antagonistic response.
Performance on academic tests (math tests, general intelligence tests) is by design
determined primarily by a person’s knowledge, analytic capability, and cognitive skills.
Thus, to increase test scores by willpower, a person may want to focus on motivational
issues, such as concentrating on the various test items throughout the test or reducing
worry cognitions (e.g., “Did I find the right answer on the last item?”) and self- doubts
(e.g., “Do I have the skills to find the right solution for the item at hand?”). Bayer and
Gollwitzer (2007, Study 1) asked female high school students to take a math test (com-
posed by high school math teachers) under one of two different instructions. Half of
the participants were asked to form the mere achievement goal intention “I will cor-
rectly solve as many tasks as possible!” The other half of the participants had to furnish
this goal intention with the self- efficacy- strengthening implementation intention And
if I start a new task, then I will tell myself: I can solve this task!” Participants in the
implementation- intention group showed better performance in the math test (in terms of
number of tasks solved correctly) than participants in the mere goal- intention condition,
Planning Promotes Goal Striving 171
indicating that self- efficacy- strengthening implementation intentions facilitate successful
goal striving in a challenging achievement situation.
Implementation intentions are usually constructed by specifying a situational cue
in the if- component and linking it to goal- directed cognitive or behavioral responses in
the then- component. In this study (Bayer & Gollwitzer, 2007, Study 1), a critical situ-
ational cue (i.e., starting a new test item) in the if- component was linked to a motivational
response (i.e., a self- efficacy- strengthening statement) in the then-part. Interestingly, this
preprogrammed, inner self- motivating speech sufficed to produce better test performance.
This suggests that implementation intentions can also be used to ameliorate motivational
problems of goal implementation (e.g., self- doubts), thus increasing a person’s willpower
(i.e., the potential to exert self- control).
This manipulation to increase willpower was particularly parsimonious because it
comprised only asking participants to form a plan in respect to when they would have to
execute an inner self- efficacy- strengthening statement. Still, these findings leave open a
pressing question: Does this inner speech need to take the format of an implementation
intention? Maybe that participants simply form a goal intention geared toward holding
up self- efficacy will suffice, such as “And I will tell myself: I can solve these problems!”
To explore this possibility, a follow-up study included this further control condition (i.e.,
a self- efficacy- strengthening goal- intention condition). Using the Raven Intelligence Test,
Bayer and Gollwitzer (2007, Study 2) found that performance on the test improved only
when participants were instructed to form self- efficacy- strengthening implementation
intentions; self- efficacy- enhancing goal intentions did not work. This finding is important
for several reasons. First, many of the field and laboratory studies investigating the ben-
efits of implementation intentions (e.g., on health behaviors, job safety, and environment
protection; see meta- analysis by Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006) do not use an additional
condition that spells out the then-part of the implementation intention in terms of a goal
intention (for an exception, see Oettingen et al., 2000). Therefore, in these studies, the
benefits of implementation intentions compared to mere goal intentions could potentially
be based on having access to additional information on how to act. With this study, how-
ever, we can confidently rule out this alternative account because specifying the strategy
of strengthening one’s self- efficacy in terms of forming a goal intention did not lead to
higher test scores. Only when this strategy was suggested to participants in the format of
an if–then plan did positive effects on test performance emerge.
Often our performances are constrained by others who are competing with us for
positive outcomes. Typical examples are negotiations in which a common good has to
be shared between two opposing parties. In such situations, exerting willpower involves
effectively protecting one’s goal striving from unwanted influences generated by the com-
petitive situation. Negotiations are cognitively very demanding tasks in which a large
amount of information has to be processed online and the course of events is hard to pre-
dict because one is performing a task not alone but conjointly with an opponent. Thus,
negotiations can be understood as the prototype of a complex situation in which striving
for desired goals can easily become derailed. Therefore, analyzing whether the beneficial
effects of implementation intentions found in previous research also hold true in negotia-
tions is of great interest to assess whether needed willpower accrues from if–then plan-
ning (see also Martin, Sheeran, Slade, Wright, & Dibble, 2009).
In their negotiation research, Trötschel and Gollwitzer (2007) explored whether the
self- regulation strategy of forming implementation intentions enables negotiators to reach
172 COGNITIVE, PHYSIOLOGICAL, AND NEUROLOGICAL DIMENSIONS
agreement even if they have to operate under the adverse conditions of a loss frame (i.e.,
participants see how many points they lose rather than win during each round and are
thus reluctant to make concessions; e.g., Bottom & Studt, 1993). In one of their experi-
ments, pairs of negotiators were assigned roles as representatives of two neighboring
countries (i.e., the blue and the orange nations) and asked to negotiate the distribution of
a disputed island (i.e., its regions, villages, and towns). One group of pairs of negotiators
was asked to form the mere prosocial goal “I want to cooperate with my counterpart!”
and the other group to furnish this goal with the respective implementation intention
And if I receive a proposal on how to share the island, then I will make a cooperative
counterproposal!” Both groups were then subjected to a frame manipulation, whereby
both members of the pairs received a loss frame manipulation (i.e., each region’s value is
expressed in points lost when the region is given away). In addition, two control condi-
tions were established: A first control condition contained pairs of negotiators who were
not assigned prosocial goals and were asked to negotiate under a loss frame; the second
control condition’s pairs of negotiators who were not assigned prosocial goals but were
asked to negotiate under a gain frame (i.e., each region’s value is expressed in points won
when the region is kept). These two control conditions were used to establish the negative
influence of loss versus gain frames on joint profits. In addition, the loss frame control
condition served as a comparison group for the two critical experimental groups (i.e., the
prosocial goal group and the prosocial goal plus implementation- intention group).
In the agreements achieved (i.e., level of joint outcomes), Trötschel and Gollwitzer
(2007) observed that pairs of loss frame negotiators with a prosocial goal intention man-
aged to reduce somewhat the resistance to concession making that arose from the loss
frame negotiation context, but only negotiators who furnished their prosocial goal inten-
tions with respective implementation intentions were successful in completely abolish-
ing the negative impact of the loss frame negotiation context (i.e., showed a negotiation
performance that did not differ from that of gain frame negotiators). In addition, action
control via implementation intentions was found to be very efficient (i.e., implementation
intentions abolished the negative effects of loss framing by leaving the negotiators’ cogni-
tive capacity intact); negotiators who had formed implementation intentions were more
likely to use the cognitively demanding integrative negotiation strategy of logrolling (i.e.,
making greater concessions on low- rather than high- priority issues).
The self- regulation of one’s goal striving becomes difficult when habitual responses
conflict with initiating and executing the needed goal- directed responses that are instru-
mental to goal attainment (e.g., Wood & Neal, 2007). In such cases, having willpower
means asserting one’s will to attain the chosen goal against unwanted habitual responses.
But can the self- regulation strategy of forming if–then plans help people to let their goals
win out over their habitual responses? By assuming that action control by implementation
intentions is immediate and efficient, and adopting a simple racehorse model of action
control (Gurney, Prescott, & Redgrave, 2001a, 2001b), people might be in a position to
break habitualized responses by forming implementation intentions (e.g., if–then plans
that spell out a response contrary to the habitualized response to the critical situation;
Holland et al., 2006).
Cohen, Bayer, Jaudas, and Gollwitzer (2008, Study 2; see also Miles & Proctor,
2008) explored the suppression of habitual responses by implementation intentions in a
laboratory experiment using the Simon task. In this paradigm, participants are asked to
respond to a nonspatial aspect of a stimulus (i.e., whether a presented tone is high or low)
Planning Promotes Goal Striving 173
by pressing a left or right key, and to ignore the location of the stimulus (i.e., whether it
is presented on one’s left or right side). The difficulty of this task is in ignoring the spatial
location (left or right) of the tone in one’s classification response (i.e., pressing a left or
right response key; Simon, 1990). The cost in reaction times is seen when the location
of the tone (e.g., right) and required key press (e.g., left) are incongruent because people
habitually respond to stimuli presented at the right or left side with the correspond-
ing hand. Cohen and colleagues (2008, Study 2) found that implementation intentions
eliminated the Simon effect for the stimulus that was specified in the if- component of the
implementation intention. Reaction times for this stimulus did not differ between the
congruent and incongruent trials (i.e., they were fast throughout).
Automatic cognitive biases, such as stereotyping, represent another type of habitual-
ized responses that can be in opposition to one’s goals. Although one may have the goal to
be egalitarian, automatic stereotyping happens quickly and unintentionally; some attempts
to control automatic stereotyping have even resulted in backfire effects. Extending earlier
work by Gollwitzer and Schaal (1998), Stewart and Payne (2008) examined whether imple-
mentation intentions designed to counter automatic stereotypes (e.g., “When I see a black
face, I will then think ‘safe’ ”) could reduce stereotyping towards a category of individuals
(versus a single exemplar). They used the process dissociation procedure (PDP; Jacoby,
1991) to estimate whether the reduction in automatic stereotyping came about by reduc-
ing automatic stereotyping, increasing control, or a combination of these two processes.
It was found that implementation intentions reduced stereotyping in a weapon identifica-
tion task (Studies 1 and 2) and an Implicit Association Test (IAT) (Study 3) by reducing
automatic effects of the stereotype (without increasing conscious control). This reduction
in automatic race bias held even for new members of the category (Study 2). These studies
suggest that implementation intentions are an efficient way to overcome automatic stereo-
typing. Recent research by Mendoza, Gollwitzer, and Amodio (2010) has added to this
insight that implementation intentions can also be used to suppress the behavioral expres-
sion of implicit stereotypes. In their research, Mendoza and colleagues examined whether
two different types of implementation intentions could improve response accuracy on
the shooter task (Correll, Park, Judd, & Wittenbrink, 2002), a reaction time measure of
implicit stereotyping. In Study 1, participants used a distraction- inhibiting implementa-
tion intention designed to engage control over the perception of goal- irrelevant stimuli
(e.g., race). In Study 2, participants used a response- facilitating implementation intention
designed to promote goal- directed action (i.e., to shoot people carrying a weapon but
not those carrying a tool). Across studies, implementation intentions improved accuracy,
thereby limiting the behavioral expression of implicit stereotypes. Furthermore, process
dissociation analyses indicated that the distraction- inhibiting implementation intention
increased controlled processing, while reducing automatic stereotype activation, whereas
the response- facilitating implementation intention increased only controlled processing.
Still, one wonders whether forming implementation intentions will always block
habitual responses. Using a racehorse metaphor, the answer has to be “no.” Whether the
habitual response or the if–then guided response will win the race depends on the relative
strength of the two behavioral orientations. If the habitual response is based on strong
habits (Webb, Sheeran, & Luszczynska, 2009) and the if–then guided response is based
on weak implementation intentions, then the habitual response should win over the if–
then planned response; and the reverse should be true when weak habits are sent into a
race with strong implementation intentions.
174 COGNITIVE, PHYSIOLOGICAL, AND NEUROLOGICAL DIMENSIONS
This implies that controlling behavior based on strong habits requires the formation
of strong implementation intentions. Such enhancement of if–then plans can be achieved
by various measures. One pertains to creating particularly strong links between situ-
ational cues (if- component) and goal- directed responses (then- component). A promising
strategy has been suggested by Knäuper, Roseman, Johnson, and Krantz (2009; see also
Papies et al., 2009). They asked participants to use mental imagery when linking situ-
ational cues to goal- directed responses in their if–then plans, and found that the rate of
initiation of the planned response increased by almost 50%. Alternatively, Adriaanse,
de Ridder, and de Wit (2009) suggested tailoring the critical cue specified in the if-part
of an implementation intention to personally relevant reasons for the habitual behavior
one wants to overcome, then link this cue to an antagonistic response. In their research,
they asked participants who wanted to stop eating unhealthy snacks to form implemen-
tation intentions that used either situational cues (e.g., at home, at school, with friends)
or motivational cues (to be social, feeling bored, distraction) in the if-part, and taking a
healthy snack in the then-part. They found that the latter implementation intentions had
a stronger effect on behavior change than did the former.
Also, it seems possible that certain formats of implementation intentions are better
suited to fight habits than others. For instance, an implementation intention that specifies
the critical cue (i.e., one or many features of the context that commonly elicit the habitual
behavior) in its if-part and an ignore response in its then-part should have a good change
to break even strong habits because the specified response (i.e., ignoring the critical cue)
already fights the detection of the critical cue—the trigger of the habitual response (Sch-
weiger Gallo et al., 2009). An implementation intention that specifies the critical cue and
links it to an antagonistic response, on the other hand, sends this response into com-
petition with the habitual response; here, it seems possible that a very strong habitual
response could potentially outrun the antagonistic response specified in the implemen-
tation intention if participants are not strongly committed to the if–then plan and the
respective goal intention. The worst format of an implementation intention for fighting
habits seems to be the following: The if-part specifies the critical cue, whereas the then-
part specifies the negation of the habitual behavior. Here, it seems possible that monitor-
ing processes associated with the suppression of the habitual response may even lead to
ironic effects (Wegner, 1994) in the sense that the habitual response gets strengthened.
So far, there is no systematic research on the effects of the format of implementation
intentions on their potential to fight habits of different strengths. Such research is defi-
nitely needed. On the other hand, one should not forget that behavior change is possible
also without changing bad habits; one can focus as well on the building of new habits in
new situational contexts. With respect to this latter approach, implementation intentions
can guide goal striving without having to outrun habitual responses. The “delegation
of control to situational cues principle,” on which implementation intention effects are
based, can unfold its facilitative effects on goal striving in an undisturbed manner.
MODERATORS OF IMPLEMENTATION INTENTION EFFECTS
Whenever people set out to use implementation intentions to improve goal striving, it is
important to be aware of the moderators of implementation intention effects discovered
so far. These pertain to commitment to the respective goal intention and the if–then plan
Planning Promotes Goal Striving 175
at hand, self- efficacy, and the personality attributes of socially prescribed perfectionism
and conscientiousness.
Commitment
For implementation intention effects to occur, people need to be strongly committed to
the superordinate goal intention (e.g., Gollwitzer 1999; Orbell et al., 1997; Sheeran et
al., 2005, Study 1; Verplanken & Faes, 1999); also, the goal should be self- concordant
(Koestner, Lekes, Powers, & Chicoine, 2002) and the goal needs to be in a state of activa-
tion (e.g., Sheeran et al., 2005, Study 2). These prerequisites help to prevent mechanistic
plan enactment when people have already disengaged from the respective goal or find
themselves pursuing different goals; in other words, the automaticity achieved by imple-
mentation intentions is a goal- dependent automaticity (Bargh, 1989). For example, in a
puzzle task on the goal- dependence of implementation intentions (Sheeran et al., 2005,
Study 2), implementation intentions that specified how to be fast in solving the puzzles
did not lead to faster responses when the goal to be accurate rather than fast was being
activated. However, when the goal to be fast rather than accurate was activated, these
implementation intentions in fact did produce faster responses.
Moreover, the commitment to the formed implementation intention needs to be
strong (e.g., Achtziger et al., 2010, Study 2) as well. When one doubts the appropriate-
ness of the formed implementation intentions, no implementation intention effects can be
expected. In line with this assumption, Achtziger and colleagues (2010, Study 2) observed
weaker implementation intention effects in participants who had been told they had the
type of personality that facilitates goal attainment by staying flexible (low plan commit-
ment) compared to participants who had been told that they had the type of personality
that facilitates goal attainment by sticking to one’s plans (high plan commitment). There
may also be ways the individual can increase the commitment to an if–then plan he or
she has already made (e.g., making one’s if–then plans public; Deutsch & Gerard, 1955);
future research needs to explore such ways and their moderators. In any case, the require-
ment of commitment to the if–then plan supports the effectiveness of implementation
intentions, by ensuring that incidental if–then plans do not impair flexibility for goal
attainment (e.g., Gollwitzer, Parks-Stamm, Jaudas, & Sheeran, 2008).
Self- Efficacy
Perceived s e l f - e f c a c y is also found to moderate implementation intention effects; it is
defined as “the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action
required to produce given attainments” (Bandura, 1997, p. 3). Koestner and colleagues
(2006) asked whether the effects of implementation intentions on the attainment of self-
generated personal goals can be bolstered for the long haul by simultaneously boosting
self- efficacy. In this study, participants were randomly assigned to one of three treat-
ment conditions. In the control condition, they completed an irrelevant goal task. In the
implementation- intention condition, participants planned when, where, and how to pur-
sue their most important New Year’s resolution. In the implementation- intention plus self-
efficacy boost condition, participants were additionally required to reflect on their actual
New Year’s resolutions using three different tasks designed to boost their self- efficacy:
They had to think of past mastery experiences (i.e., situations in which they achieved a
176 COGNITIVE, PHYSIOLOGICAL, AND NEUROLOGICAL DIMENSIONS
similar goal), vicarious experiences (i.e., situations in which a similar individual attained
a similar goal), and means of social support (i.e., an individual who encouraged their
goal). Measuring goal progress via questionnaires e- mailed 20 weeks later, participants
reported a significantly higher level of goal progress in the implementation- intention plus
self- efficacy boosting condition compared to the control condition, as well as to the mere
implementation- intention condition. In a recent study by Wieber, Odenthal, and Gollwit-
zer (2010), high versus low self- efficacy was manipulated by asking participants to solve
low- or high- difficulty goal- relevant tasks. It was observed that high-self- efficacy par-
ticipants showed stronger implementation intention effects than low-self- efficacy partici-
pants, and this was true in particular when goal striving was difficult rather than easy.
Personal Attributes
Socially Prescribed Perfectionism
In the first set of studies (Powers, Koestner, & Topciu, 2005) on the interaction between
personality traits and if–then planning, perfectionism was examined such that socially
prescribed perfectionism was distinguished from self-oriented perfectionism. Similar to
self- oriented perfectionism, socially prescribed perfectionism entails setting high per-
sonal standards and evaluating oneself stringently. But whereas the standards for self-
oriented perfectionists are set by the people themselves, socially prescribed perfection-
ists try to conform to standards and expectations that are prescribed by others. A high
level of socially prescribed perfectionism is related to depression, anxiety disorders, and
obsessive– compulsive symptoms (e.g., Powers, Zuroff, & Topciu, 2004). It was observed
that participants who scored high on the Socially Prescribed Perfectionism subscale of the
Multidimensional Perfectionist Scale (MPS; Hewitt, Flett, Turnbull- Donovan, & Mikail,
1991) reported poorer progress after 2 and 4 weeks on their New Year’s resolutions (i.e.,
three personal goals) when they formed implementation intentions rather than receiving
control instructions. Participants with high scores on socially prescribed perfectionism
who formed implementation intentions also reported lower levels of satisfaction with
goal progress (as perceived in their own view and in the presumed view of others) than
participants who formed implementation intentions but scored low on this subscale.
Importantly, for participants who scored high on self- oriented perfectionism, forming
implementation intentions actually did improve goal progress (Powers et al., 2005). Pos-
sibly, social perfectionists fail to commit to implementation intentions because they may
feel that the expectations and standards prescribed by others often change unexpectedly,
and flexibly responding to such changes may be hindered by strong commitments to a
given if–then plan.
Conscientiousness
A second line of research on personal attributes examined conscientiousness (Webb,
Christian, & Armitage, 2007). In an experimental study using undergraduate students,
attendance in class was studied as a function of conscientiousness, openness to experience,
goal intentions, and implementation intentions. Most importantly, the implementation
intention effects were moderated by participants’ personality trait of conscientiousness.
While class attendance of highly conscientious students was not changed by the forma-
Planning Promotes Goal Striving 177
tion of implementation intentions because it was high to begin with and stayed high,
low and moderately conscientious people significantly benefited from planning when,
where, and how they would attend class (their class attendance rates were low to begin
with and increased to high when implementation intentions were formed). If one assumes
that being on time is easy for people with high conscientiousness but difficult for people
who are low on this personal attribute, this finding is in line with the general observation
(Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006) that in particular it is the difficult goals that benefit from
the formation of implementation intentions; easy goals can be striven for effectively with-
out having to prepare goal striving by forming implementation intentions.
IMPLEMENTATION INTENTIONS: PAST AND FUTURE
Past: Conceptual Roots
The concept of implementation intentions grew out of a more comprehensive approach to
goal pursuit: the mindset theory of action phases (Gollwitzer, 1990). The mindset model
of action phases sees successful goal pursuit as solving a series of successive tasks: delib-
erating on wishes (potential goals) and choosing between them; planning and initiating
goal- directed actions; bringing goal pursuit to a successful end; and evaluating its out-
come. This task notion implies that people can activate cognitive procedures (mindsets)
that facilitate task completion simply by getting heavily involved with the task at hand.
Whereas deliberating between potential goals (i.e., wishes) activates cognitive procedures
(i.e., a deliberative mindset) that facilitate decision making, engaging in planning acti-
vates those procedures (i.e., an implemental mindset) that support the implementation
of goals.
Researchers have found that when participants are asked to plan the implementation
of a set goal, an implemental mindset with the following attributes develops (review by
Gollwitzer, in press). Participants become closed- minded to distracting, goal- irrelevant
information while processing information related to implementing goals more effectively
(e.g., information on the sequencing of actions). Moreover, relevant desirability- related
information is processed in a partial manner, favoring pros over cons, and relevant
feasibility- related information is analyzed in a manner that favors illusory optimism.
Self- perception of possessing important personal attributes (e.g., cheerfulness, smartness,
social sensitivity) is strengthened, whereas perceived vulnerability to both controllable
and uncontrollable risks is lowered (e.g., developing an addiction to prescription drugs or
losing a partner to an early death, respectively). Thus, the implemental mindset facilitates
goal attainment by focusing individuals on implementation- related information and by
preventing the waning of commitment to the chosen goal.
Traditionally, implemental mindsets have been analyzed primarily in terms of their
cognitive features, without direct testing of these features’ effects on actual implementa-
tion of goals. Armor and Taylor (2003), however, reported that an implemental mindset
facilitates better task performance (in a scavenger hunt to be performed on campus), and
that this effect is mediated by the cognitive features of the implemental mindset (e.g.,
enhanced self- efficacy, optimistic outcome expectations, perceiving the task as easy). This
finding suggests that the positive expectations associated with the implemental mindset
do indeed lead to more effective self- regulation and better outcomes. Participants’ per-
178 COGNITIVE, PHYSIOLOGICAL, AND NEUROLOGICAL DIMENSIONS
formance expectations in the Armor and Taylor study, however, were for an immediate,
imminent task. One wonders, therefore, whether the temporal distance of the perfor-
mance at issue may moderate the beneficial effects of the implemental mindset. This
assumption is supported by long-term performance data collected by Gagné and Lydon
(2001). In their study, long-term relationship survival was not affected by implemental
mindset participants’ optimistic predictions of a stable relationship. It appears, then, that
whenever actual goal implementation is assessed further and further away from the induc-
tion of the implemental mindset, the positive effects of its various cognitive features on
goal implementation may no longer be observed. From a self- regulation point of view, it
seems wise therefore not to rely on the beneficial effects of getting involved with planning
in general when the goal that is striven for demands acting on the goal in not only the
near but also the distant future; rather, one should resort to the self- regulation strategy of
making specific if–then plans (i.e., form implementation intentions) because the beneficial
effects of such plans on goal attainment have been found to accrue over vast periods of
time (i.e., several months; see the meta- analysis by Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006).
Future: Intervention Research
In everyday life, people may not succeed in forming effective implementation intentions
for various reasons related to putting the wrong critical situation into the if-part of the
plan and specifying a response that is not very instrumental to goal attainment in the
then-part. Moreover, people may forget about the preliminaries of implementation inten-
tion effects, such as a strong commitment to the superordinate goal and a strong willing-
ness to commit to a possible if–then plan. It seems appropriate, therefore, that research
turns to the question of how the self- regulation strategy of forming implementation inten-
tions is taught best in interventions geared at helping people to strive for their goals more
effectively.
There is a way of thinking about the future that prepares people maximally for form-
ing implementation intentions. This mental strategy, spelled out in Oettingen’s (2000;
Oettingen et al., 2001) theory of fantasy realization, has been referred to as mental con-
trasting. It works like this: If, for instance, a person has the wish of “getting to know
someone I like” or of “improving the relationship to my partner,” mental contrasting
requires that one first mentally elaborate the positive future of having successfully solved
this issue, and right after that elaborate the negative reality impeding the attainment of
the positive future. As a result, when forming goal commitments, people discriminate
according to their expectations of success: They arrive at strong goal commitments when
expectations of success are high, and they refrain from such commitments when expec-
tations of success are low. Moreover, mental contrasting allows insights on what stands
in the way of reaching the desired future, thus preparing one to plan how to overcome
these obstacles. In other words, mental contrasting not only provides the commitment for
the pursuit of promising goals but it also puts into people’s heads the intricacies of striv-
ing for goal attainment. Not surprisingly, then, Oettingen and colleagues (2001, Study
3) found that research participants who were led to contrast a desired future outcome
mentally subsequently engaged in more if–then planning than control participants—that
is, participants who only dwelled on obstacles of reality or only indulged in the desired
positive future.
Planning Promotes Goal Striving 179
That mental contrasting is indeed a sophisticated problem- solving strategy is attested
by a recent study using continuous magnetoencephalography (MEG), a brain imaging
technique measuring magnetic fields produced by electrical activity in the brain (Achtz-
iger, Fehr, Oettingen, Gollwitzer, & Rockstroh, 2009). Mental contrasting as compared
to indulging in a desired positive future or simply resting produced heightened brain
activity in areas associated with working memory, episodic memory, intention mainte-
nance, action preparation, and vivid visualization. That is, mental contrasting implied
vividly imagining a desired future and contrasting it with the reality that stands in the
way of realizing this future. The brain activity associated with indulging, on the other
hand, did not differ from resting.
Recent research has also discovered a further mediating process pertaining to the
energization of effort (Oettingen, Mayer, Sevincer, et al., 2009). Specifically, mentally
contrasting an achievable desired future with obstacles of present reality leads to energi-
zation, which in turn creates goal commitments strong enough to lead to effective goal
striving and successful goal attainment. These mediating effects of energization on goal
commitment are shown on physiological indicators of energization (i.e., systolic blood
pressure), as well as experiential indicators (self- report of feeling energized). Moreover,
mental contrasting does not have to pertain to the attainment of a positive future; people
can also fantasize about a negative future, then contrast it with elaborations of the posi-
tive reality. Oettingen, Mayer, Thorpe, Janetzke, and Lorenz (2005) created tolerance
and support toward foreigners in a group of xenophobic high school students by having
them elaborate on their fears that social conflicts would arise if foreign youths moved
into their neighborhood and contrast these fears with positive aspects of present reality
standing in the way of the feared future.
It appears, then, that mental contrasting prepares people cognitively and motivation-
ally to engage in if–then planning for the purpose of making goal striving more effective.
Oettingen and colleagues (Adriaanse et al., in press; Christiansen, Oettingen, Dahme, &
Klinger, 2010; Oettingen & Gollwitzer, 2010; Oettingen & Stephens, 2009; Stadler, Oet-
tingen, & Gollwitzer, 2009, 2010) thus developed an intervention that combines mental
contrasting and formation of implementation intentions into one meta- cognitive strategy
called MCII (i.e., mental contrasting with implementation intentions). In order to unfold
their beneficial effects, implementation intentions require that strong goal commitments
be in place (Sheeran et al., 2005, Study 1), and mental contrasting creates such strong
commitments (Oettingen et al., 2001, 2009; Oettingen, Mayer, Stephens, & Brinkmann,
in press; Oettingen, Mayer, & Thorpe, in press). Additionally, mental contrasting guar-
antees the identification of those critical obstacles that do indeed hinder goal striving.
These very obstacles can then be addressed with if–then plans by specifying them as
critical situations in the if- component that link them to goal- directed responses specified
in the then- component. In this way, the idiosyncratic critical obstacle will be linked to an
idiosyncratic, instrumental goal- directed response.
Indeed, in a recent intervention study with middle-aged women (Stadler, Oettingen,
& Gollwitzer, 2009), participants were taught only the individual steps and cognitive
principles of the MCII self- regulation strategy, and to apply it by themselves whenever
possible to the wish of exercising more (hence, MCII is referred to as a meta- cognitive
self- regulation strategy). Participants were free to choose whatever form of exercising
they wished and were encouraged to anticipate exactly those obstacles that were person-
180 COGNITIVE, PHYSIOLOGICAL, AND NEUROLOGICAL DIMENSIONS
ally most relevant and link them to exactly those goal- directed responses that personally
appeared to be most instrumental. As dependent measures, participants maintained daily
behavioral diaries to keep track of the amount of time they exercised every day. Overall,
participants using the MCII technique exercised more than control participants given
information on the beneficial health effects of exercising; this effect showed up imme-
diately after the intervention and remained stable throughout the entire period of the
study (16 weeks after the intervention). More specifically, participants in the MCII group
exercised nearly twice as much: an average of 1 hour more per week than participants in
the information-only control group.
Conducting the same MCII intervention to promote healthy eating in middle-aged
women (i.e., eating more fruits and vegetables) also produced the desired behavior change
effects, and these persisted even over the extensive time period of 2 years (Stadler, Oet-
tingen, & Gollwitzer, 2010). Moreover, an MCII study by Adriaanse and colleagues (in
press) targeted the negative eating habit of unhealthy snacking in college students. MCII
worked for students with both weak and strong habits, and it was more effective than
mental contrasting or formulating implementation intentions alone.
Finally, MCII seems to facilitate behavior change even when there is an initial reluc-
tance to engage in the targeted behavior. Christiansen and colleagues (2010) promoted
physical mobility in chronic back pain outpatients from a rehabilitation center in Ger-
many by teaching them MCII. Participants were randomly assigned to either a control
group (i.e., outpatient cognitive- behavioral therapy back pain program) or an intervention
group (i.e., this program plus MCII intervention). The MCII intervention improved physi-
cal mobility more than the standard treatment only as observed 2 weeks and 3 months
after the intervention, and as assessed by subjective and objective measures. These effects
were independent of participants’ experienced pain, which did not differ between condi-
tions during and after treatment. In summary, research suggests that MCII interventions
are a very useful self- regulation technique when it comes to meeting one’s goals.
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... That is, people will automatically increase their efforts when hindrances are encountered. In sum, the strategy of mental contrasting (Oettingen, 2012) itself and in combination with implementation intentions (Gollwitzer & Oettingen, 2011) benefits behavior change by nonconscious processes. They service the demand for healthy aging by allowing people to flexibly respond to an ever-changing context (e.g., changes in work or transition to retirement in old age, or in relationships, or health). ...
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This paper reviews prior work on the link between psychological preparedness and anticipatory response tendencies. First, the literature suggests that psychological preparedness is associated with a wide range of anticipatory response tendencies while, at the same time, suggesting several key moderators and a motivational component of preparedness. Second, it also suggests that there are several different forms and means of psychological preparedness. In particular, it suggests that different anticipatory response tendencies (e.g., implementation intentions) are the means employed to create different forms of psychological preparedness (e.g., action readiness). Finally, rather than fundamentally different variables, the literature suggests that the different forms and means of preparedness work together across different life (anticipated transitions versus routine life) contexts to optimize the same overall variable of psychological preparedness.
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