Making Goal Pursuit Effective:
Expectancy-Dependent Goal Setting and Planned Goal Striving
Gabriele Oettingen 1,2 Peter M. Gollwitzer 1,3
New York University1
University of Hamburg, Germany2
University of Konstanz, Germany 3
To appear in: J. Forgas, R. F. Baumeister, & D. M. Tice (Eds.), The psychology of self-
regulation. New York: Psychology Press.
Making Goal Pursuit Effective:
Expectancy-Dependent Goal Setting and Planned Goal Striving
The present chapter discusses the self-regulation of goal pursuit. Research on goal
pursuit has commonly focused on two separate issues: the setting of appropriate goals
and the effective striving for goal attainment (Gollwitzer & Moskowitz, 1996; Oettingen
& Gollwitzer, 2001). Research on goal setting observed that mentally contrasting a
desired future outcome with obstacles of present reality leads to goal commitments to
reach this outcome in line with one’s expectations of success (Oettingen, 2000). Given
that expectancies of success are high, strong goal commitments emerge as reflected in
cognitive, affective, and behavioral indicators. Research on goal striving observed that
spelling out goal implementation in advance by simple if-then plans linking an
instrumental goal-directed behavior (then-component) to anticipated situational cues (if-
component) manages to automate goal striving, thus facilitating getting started on one’s
goals and shielding them from disruptions (Gollwitzer, 1993, 1999). The goal setting
strategy of mental contrasting (MC) has recently be combined with the goal striving
strategy of making if-then plans (i.e., implementation intentions; II) into a joint strategy
(MCII) to be taught in interventions geared at enhancing the self-regulation of goal
pursuit. Various intervention studies entailing different samples (e.g., high school
students, college students, female professionals) and various types of goals (e.g.,
academic, life-style, health) attest to the effectiveness of the MCII strategy. It can be
taught as a meta-cognitive strategy that is then applied by the trainees to their own
individual concerns; effects on goal attainment are both immediate and long-lasting, and
broader outcome variables such as self-discipline and self-esteem are also positively
affected. In the present chapter we will present the development of research on mental
contrasting and forming implementation intentions, and how they were combined into the
creation of an intervention strategy to promote goal attainment.
If people want to meet their goals, they need to set goals framed in a way that
maximizes goal attainment. Framing one’s goals in terms of promoting positive outcomes
versus preventing negative outcomes (promotion versus prevention goals, Higgins, 1997)
helps goal attainment, as does acquiring competence versus demonstrating the possession
of competence (learning versus performance goals, Dweck, 1999), and anticipating
internal versus external rewards (intrinsic versus extrinsic goals, Ryan & Deci, 2000).
That is, promotion, learning and intrinsic goals are commonly attained more successfully
than prevention, performance, and extrinsic goals. The precision with which the desired
future outcome is spelled out also influences success in goal attainment. For example,
goals with a proximal versus a distal time frame (Bandura & Schunk, 1981) are more
likely to be achieved, and goals with specific rather than I-will-do-my-best standards lead
to better performances (Locke & Latham, 1990).
It is also useful to set goals that one can strongly commit to, as such goals
(intentions) have a better chance of being attained (Ajzen, 1991; meta-analysis by Webb
& Sheeran, 2006). Strong goal commitments are based on the belief that a given goal is
both highly desirable and feasible (e.g., Atkinson, 1957; Bandura, 1997; Gollwitzer,
1990; Klinger, 1975). Desirability comprises the summarized beliefs about the
pleasantness of expected short-term and long-term consequences of goal attainment
(Heckhausen, 1977). Feasibility is defined as expectations that future events and actions
will occur (Gollwitzer, 1990). Prominent examples include expectations of whether one
can execute a behavior necessary for realizing a specific outcome (i.e., self-efficacy
expectations; Bandura, 1977; Maddux, 1999), expectations that a behavior will lead to a
specified outcome (i.e., outcome expectations; Bandura, 1977; instrumentality beliefs;
Vroom, 1964), and judgments about the general likelihood of a certain outcome (i.e.,
general expectations; Oettingen & Mayer, 2002). It is important to recognize, however,
that perceiving a desirable goal as feasible does not necessarily make for strong goal
commitments. Recent research suggests that the way people think about a desired future
outcome affects whether feasibility is indeed translated into strong goal commitments
facilitating subsequent goal striving and goal attainment.
Effective Goal Setting: The Self-Regulation Strategy of Mental Contrasting
The model of fantasy realization (Oettingen, 2000; Oettingen, Pak, & Schnetter,
2001) proposes that mentally contrasting a desired future with the reality that impedes its
realization will create expectancy-dependent goal commitments. Specifically, in mental
contrasting, people imagine the attainment of a desired future (e.g., becoming a clinical
psychologist; giving a good talk) and then reflect on the present reality that stands in the
way of attaining the desired future (e.g., the GRE exam yet to be taken; evaluation
anxiety). Thus, contrasting fantasies about the future with reflections on reality is a
problem solving strategy: the person wants to achieve a desired future and needs to
engage in actions to realize it.
In their theory of problem solving, Newell and Simon (1972) distinguish between
an objective and a subjective problem space. The objective problem space is defined by
the demands of the task. In the case of realizing a desired future, the objective problem
space is composed of the desired future and the impediments of getting there. The
subjective problem space is defined by the internal representations of the problem.
Mental contrasting matches the subjective problem space with the objective problem
space by linking future and reality, and thereby people recognize that they need to take
actions in order to achieve the desired future. As a consequence, expectations of attaining
the desired future become activated and determine the person’s commitment and
subsequent striving to attain the wanted future. When perceived chances of success
(expectations of success) are high, people will actively commit to and strive towards
reaching the desired future; when expectations of success are low, people will refrain
from doing so. In other words, mental contrasting makes a person sensitive to the
question of which goals are reachable, and it gets people to go for reachable goals and
keep clear of unreachable ones. This ultimately should protect a person’s resources (time,
energy, and money) as people will not show any engagement in the face of unreachable
goals, but engage without restraint in the face of reachable goals.
The model of fantasy realization specifies two other ways of thinking about the
future; however, both fail to lead to goal commitment and goal striving guided by the
perceived likelihood of attaining the desired future. People may either solely envision the
attainment of the wished-for future (i.e., indulging) or solely reflect on the negative
reality (i.e., dwelling). Considered again from a problem solving perspective (Newell &
Simon, 1972), both modes of thinking create a subjective problem space that does not
correspond to the objective problem space. As the objective problem space is not
subjectively accessible, a discrepancy or tension between future and reality is not
perceived and thus it is not signaled that actions would be necessary or instrumental to
achieve the desired future. Therefore, expectations of success do not become activated
and goal commitment and goal striving do not reflect the perceived likelihood of reaching
the desired future. The level of goal striving is determined by the a priori commitment
that the person holds with respect to attaining the desired future. In other words, it is only
mental contrasting, but not indulging and dwelling, that succeeds in strengthening goal
commitment with subsequent goal striving when expectations of success are high, and in
weakening it when expectations of success are low. Indulging and dwelling are thus less
effective in protecting a person’s resources than mental contrasting; individuals who
indulge and dwell show a medium level of engagement even when no engagement (in the
case of low expectations of success) or full engagement (in the case of high expectations
of success) would be the resource-efficient way to go.
A multitude of studies have tested the effects of mental contrasting, indulging,
and dwelling on goal commitment and goal striving (Oettingen, 2000; Oettingen, Hönig,
& Gollwitzer, 2000; Oettingen, Mayer, Thorpe, Janetzke, & Lorenz, 2005; Oettingen et
al., 2001). For example, in one study, freshmen enrolled in a vocational school for
computer programming (Oettingen et al., 2001, Study 4), first indicated their expectations
of excelling in mathematics. Then they named aspects that they associated with excelling
in mathematics (participants named e.g., feelings of pride, increasing job prospects) and
aspects of reality that may impede such excelling (participants named e.g., being
distracted by peers, feeling lazy). Subsequently, three experimental conditions were
established to correspond with the three ways of thinking about the future. In the mental
contrasting condition, participants had to elaborate in writing two positive aspects of the
future and two aspects of reality, in alternating order, beginning with a positive aspect of
the future. Participants in the indulging condition were asked to elaborate four positive
aspects of the future; in the dwelling condition, they instead elaborated four negative
aspects of reality. As a dependent variable, participants indicated how energized they felt
with respect to excelling in mathematics (e.g., how active, eventful, energetic). Further,
two weeks after the experiment, participants’ teachers reported how much effort each
student had invested for the last two weeks and provided each student with a grade for
that time period.
As predicted, only in the mental contrasting group the students felt energized,
exerted effort, and earned grades based upon their expectations: Those with high
expectations of success felt the most energized, invested the most effort, and received the
highest course grades, while those with low expectations of success felt the least
energized, invested the least effort, and received the lowest course grades. To the
contrary, participants in the indulging and dwelling conditions felt moderately energized,
exerted moderate effort, and received moderate grades independent of their expectations
A variety of studies pertaining to different life domains replicated this pattern of
results. For example, experiments pertained to studying abroad (Oettingen et al., 2001,
Study 2), acquiring a second language (Oettingen et al., 2000, Study 1), getting to know
an attractive stranger (Oettingen, 2000, Study 1), finding a balance between work and
family life (Oettingen, 2000, Study 2), improving one’s self (Oettingen et al., 2005, Study
1), and idiosyncratic interpersonal wishes of great importance (Oettingen et al., 2001,
Study 1 and 3). Further, goal commitment and goal striving were assessed by cognitive
(e.g., making plans), affective (e.g., feeling responsible for the wished-for ending),
motivational (e.g., feelings of energization), and behavioral indicators (e.g., invested
effort and achievements). Indicators were measured via self-report or observations and
either directly after the experiment or weeks later. In all of these studies the same pattern
of results appeared: Given high expectations of success, participants in the mental
contrasting group showed the strongest goal commitment and goal striving; given low
expectations, people showed least goal commitment and goal striving. Participants who
indulged in positive images about the future or dwelled on negative images of reality
showed moderate commitment without considering their expectations of success.
It is important to note that the outcomes of mental contrasting do not occur as a
result of changes in expectations (feasibility) or incentive value (desirability), but rather
as a result of the mode of self-regulatory thought, aligning commitment with expectations
(Oettingen et al., 2001; Oettingen, Mayer, Sevincer, Stephens, Pak, & Hagenah, 2007,
Study 1). Furthermore, it is important to mention that the effects of mental contrasting
depend on the person perceiving the present reality as standing in the way of realizing the
future. When engaging in mental contrasting, individuals first elaborate a desired future,
establishing the positive future as their reference point, and only thereafter elaborate
aspects of the present reality, thereby perceiving the negative aspects as obstacles
standing in the way of attaining the future. Reversing this order (i.e., reverse mental
contrasting), by first elaborating the negative reality followed by elaboration of the
desired future, thwarts construal of the present standing in the way of the future and thus
fails to elicit goal commitment congruent with expectations of success (Oettingen et al.,
2001, Study 3). The studies presented next explored the underlying motivational and
cognitive processes responsible for these effects and provide neurological data
substantiating and extending the theoretical principles.
Mechanisms of Mental Contrasting
Energization. Locke and Latham (2002) identify feelings of energization as
critical to promoting goal-directed behavior. They contend that commitment to realizing a
desired future is linked to an “energizing function” (i.e., activity incitement; Brunstein &
Gollwitzer, 1996; subjective vitality; Ryan & Frederick, 1997). For example, desired
futures that prove more challenging to achieve (e.g., a high school student practicing
SAT, setting her sights on beating her personal score) give rise to greater effort than less
challenging desired futures (e.g., a high school student practicing SAT, setting her sights
on achieving her usual score; Locke & Latham, 2002). Thus, energization was
hypothesized and found to be a mediator responsible for the effects of mental contrasting
on fostering discriminative goal pursuit (Oettingen et al., 2007, Studies 1 and 2).
Specifically, using an acute stress paradigm (i.e., videotaped public speaking; al’Absi,
Bongard, Buchanan, et al., 1997), goal commitment as evinced by the quantity and
quality of goal striving were observed in the laboratory. Economics students participating
in this study were informed that they were to deliver a speech in front of a video camera
to help with the development of a measure of professional skills for a human resource
department. Participants were randomly assigned to either a mental contrasting or an
indulging condition. As dependent variables, participants indicated their initial feelings of
energization with a self-report measure (e.g., how energized do you feel when you think
about giving your talk), and to gauge participants’ subjective performance they were
asked to rate their actual performance. Persistence of goal striving was indicated by the
length of each participant’s presentation and quality of goal striving was assessed via
independent raters’ evaluations of the quality of the videotape content (Oettingen et al.,
2007, Study 2).
Consistent with previous mental contrasting studies, individuals in the mental
contrasting group, but not those in the indulging condition, evidenced a strong link
between perceived expectations of success and goal striving as measured by subjective
self-evaluations of performance and objective ratings of the videotaped presentations.
Moreover, feelings of energization not only showed the same pattern of results as the
goal striving variables (i.e., congruous with goal commitment and striving), but they also
predicted objective and subjective presentation quality over and above the interaction
effect of experimental condition (i.e., mental contrasting or indulging) and expectations.
Additionally, in the mental contrasting condition, feelings of energization fully and
significantly explained the relationship between expectations of success and both
subjective and objective performance quality. Physiological data as measured by systolic
blood pressure showed the same pattern of results (Oettingen et al., 2007, Study 1).
Cardiovascular responses, such as systolic blood pressure, are considered reliable
indicators of physiological arousal states and effort mobilization (Gendolla & Wright,
2005; Wright & Kirby, 2001).
Planning for upcoming hindrances. Failing to prepare and plan for
hindrances one could encounter on the way towards achieving a desired future
compromises one’s chances of success (Gollwitzer, 1990). Since mental contrasting leads
individuals to view the negative aspects of the present reality as obstacles hindering the
attainment of a desired future, high expectancy mental contrasting individuals should
prepare for potential impediments by planning out in advance how to tackle any future
obstacles. Specifically, high expectancy mental contrasting individuals should
spontaneously form if-then plans shown to be highly effective facilitators of goal striving
in a host of domains (meta-analysis by Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006). Moreover, because
these plans have been observed to emerge during the mental contrasting procedure
(Oettingen et al., 2001, Study 1; Oettingen et al., 2005, Study 2), they qualify as a
cognitive mechanism responsible for the effects of mental contrasting on goal attainment.
To test this assumption, Oettingen, Mayer, & Brinkmann (2007) had students engage in
mental contrasting, indulging, dwelling, or reverse mental contrasting regarding an
interpersonal concern. Thereafter, participants answered questions assessing their
commitment to resolving their goals (e.g., putting effort into achieving their goals).
To assess the mediating variable for this study, two independent raters content-
analyzed participants’ elaborations of the negative aspects of the reality in either the
mental contrasting, dwelling, or reverse contrasting conditions to assess the number of if-
then plans (e.g., “If I come home feeling overworked, then I will still spend at least half
an hour with [my partner]”) formed as a result of experimental condition. A significant
benefit of this content-analysis method is its ability to capture participants’ plan-
formation during the process of mental contrasting versus non-contrasting thought (i.e.,
dwelling and reverse contrasting). Like in the previously described studies on
energization, if-then plans mediated the interaction between expectation and self-
regulatory thought, and in the mental contrast condition, forming if-then plans fully
explained the relation between expectations and subjective success in goal achievement.
Thus, when people are in the mental contrasting condition and have high expectations of
success, they consider a course of action towards goal attainment and make plans to
overcome anticipated obstacles. Such planning in turn helps to form strong goal
commitments with respective intensive goal striving.
Neural correlates. Mental contrasting, as opposed to indulging, presents itself as
a cognitively demanding task, one requiring individuals to look into the future, past and
present, helping them to form goal commitment (i.e., intentions) in line with their
expectations. As such, mental contrasting should be associated with greater activity in
brain regions linked to working memory processes as mental contrasting effects are based
on mentally placing the present negative reality in the way of the desired future.
However, mental contrasting should also lead to greater activity in brain areas associated
with episodic memory because it demands the elaboration of obstacles. Such elaborations
should recruit memories of relevant obstacles that were experienced in the past as well as
relevant memories about past successes and failures in trying to overcome them. Mental
contrasting should also be linked to heightened activity in brain regions that are related to
vividly imagining events. As the mental contrasting procedure demands switching back
and forth from positive images about a desired future to images of impeding obstacles,
images of both the desired future and obstacles should become particularly vivid and
crystallized. Finally, mental contrasting should lead to greater activity in brain regions
that are related to holding intentions and action preparation because mental contrasting
leads to the formation of strong goal commitment, given that relevant expectations of
success are high.
Indeed, a study using continuous magnetoencephalography (MEG), a brain
imaging technique measuring magnetic fields produced by electrical activity in the brain
(Achtziger, Fehr, Oettingen, Gollwitzer, & Rockstroh, in press), showed that mental
contrasting and indulging are two distinct mental activities. Specifically, mental
contrasting heightened activity in brain regions responsible for working memory and
intention formation, suggesting that mental contrasting directs attention towards critical
information, such as positioning the present, negative reality in the way of the desired
future. Moreover, mental contrasting heightened activity in regions responsible for
episodic memory and vivid mental imagery suggesting that mental contrasting is rooted
in the retrieval of past personal events, as well as the processing of complex stimuli, such
as re-experiencing past incidents. In contrast, indulging relies less on episodic memory
processes. Indulging in a positive future primarily entails loose associations between
aspects of the not-yet-experienced desired positive future rather than the mental
exploration of past experiences (Oettingen, 2000; Oettingen et al., 2001). Furthermore,
mental contrasting requires a critical look at both the desired future and negative reality,
and thus evokes more vivid images than indulging.
Going beyond prior research, the present findings suggest that certain
preliminaries have to be fulfilled so that mental contrasting can evidence its beneficial
effects. For example, as mental contrasting taxes working memory, people should not be
able to effectively perform mental contrasting whenever cognitive resources are blocked
by dual task activities (e.g., being occupied by demanding cognitive tasks, coping with
interpersonal stressors, extreme tiredness, or physical frailty and pain). Moreover, as
mental contrasting is based on the effective retrieval of relevant obstacles experienced in
the past, mental contrasting should be particularly effective for people who have carefully
encoded past experiences with obstacles and thus can easily and accurately be retrieved
from memory. Vividly depicted in the present MEG study is the cognitive complexity of
Findings supporting the model of fantasy realization show that perceiving the
envisioned future as desirable (positive attitude or high incentive value) and feasible
(e.g., high efficacy expectations) are just prerequisites for the emergence of strong goal
commitments. To create strong goal commitments, people need to translate these positive
attitudes and high expectations into binding goals, a process which is facilitated by
mentally contrasting the positive future with negative reality. Such mental contrasting has
been found to produce expectancy-dependent goal commitments in widely different life
domains (e.g., interpersonal, achievement, and health). It is based on the motivational
process of energization and the cognitive process of if-then planning when translating
expectations into goal commitment and subsequent striving, and it has been linked to
brain activity typical of purposeful problem solving based on one’s past experiences and
Implementing Set Goals
Goal attainment is not secured yet solely by forming strong goal commitments
and framing the goals at hand in an appropriate manner. There is 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 seems
to be the following: People need to prepare themselves so that their chances of
overcoming the major difficulties of goal implementation are kept high. The type of
preparation that has found much theoretical and empirical attention in recent years is the
making of if-then plans (i.e., the forming of implementation intentions).
The Distinction between Goal Intentions and Implementation Intentions
To form an implementation intention (Gollwitzer, 1993, 1999), one needs to
identify a future goal-relevant situational cue (i.e., the if-component) and a related
planned response to that cue (i.e., the then-component). Whereas a goal intention
specifies the desired event in the form of “I intend to perform Behavior X or to reach
Outcome X” (e.g., to exercise regularly or to get an A in Introductory Psychology), an
implementation intention specifies both an anticipated goal-relevant situation and a
proper goal-directed response. Thus, an implementation intention that serves the goal
intention to “get an A in Introductory Psychology” would follow the form “if Situation Y
arises (e.g., if my roommates will be asking me to go out tonight), then I will perform
Behavior Z (e.g., then I will say that I will be joining them next week when my exam is
Implementation intention provide benefits over and above goal intentions: a meta-
analysis by Gollwitzer and Sheeran (2006) involving over 8,000 participants in 94
independent studies reported an effect size of d = .65. This medium-to-large effect size
(Cohen, 1992) represents the additional facilitation of goal achievement by
implementation intentions compared to goal intentions alone. As goal intentions by
themselves already have a facilitating effect on behavior enactment (Webb & Sheeran,
2006), the size of this effect is remarkable.
How do implementation intention effects come about? The mental links created
by implementation intentions facilitate goal attainment on the basis of psychological
processes that relate to both the anticipated situation (the if-part of the plan) and the
intended behavior (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 was observed in several studies
(e.g., Aarts, Dijksterhuis, & Midden, 1999; Parks-Stamm, Gollwitzer, & Oettingen, 2007;
Webb & Sheeran, in press, 2007) and means that people are in a good position to identify
and take notice of the critical situation when they subsequently encounter it (e.g., Webb
& Sheeran, 2004). For instance, participants who formed implementation intentions to
collect a coupon were faster to recognize words related to the location of the coupon
(e.g., corridor, red door) compared to participants who only formed the goal intention to
collect the coupon; and implementation intention participants also were more likely to
collect the coupon subsequently.
Studies also indicate that implementation intentions forge a strong association
between the specified opportunity and the specified response (Webb & Sheeran, in press,
2007). The upshot of these strong links is that the initiation of the goal-directed response
specified in the if-then plan becomes automated, that is, exhibits features of automaticity
including immediacy, efficiency, and redundancy of conscious intent. The idea is that
people do not have to deliberate anymore about when and how they should act when they
have formed an implementation intention—unlike people who have formed mere goal
intentions. Evidence that if-then planners act quickly (Gollwitzer & Brandstätter, 1997,
Experiment 3), deal effectively with cognitive demands (Brandstätter, Lengfelder, &
Gollwitzer, 2001), and do not need to consciously intend to act at the critical moment
(Sheeran, Webb, & Gollwitzer, 2005, Study 2) is consistent with this idea.
These component processes of implementation intentions (enhanced cue
accessibility, automatization of responding) mean that if-then planning enables people to
see and seize good opportunities to move towards their goals. Strategically forming if-
then plans automates goal striving (Gollwitzer & Schaal, 1998) because people delegate
control of goal-directed behaviors to pre-selected situational cues with the explicit
purpose of reaching their goals, that is, automatic action initiation originates in a
conscious act of will (if-then planning).
Implementation Intentions and Solving Problems of Goal Striving
Given these special features of action control by implementation intentions, one
wonders whether people benefit from forming implementation intentions when they are
confronted with the most challenging problems of goal implementation: getting started,
staying on track, calling a halt, and not overextending oneself.
Getting Started. Numerous studies suggest 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) analyzed a goal intention (i.e., writing a
report about how the participants spent Christmas Eve) that had to be performed at a time
(i.e., during the subsequent two Christmas holidays) where people are commonly busy
with other things. Still, research participants who had furnished their goal intention with
an implementation intention that specified when, where, and how one wanted to get
started on this project were about three times as likely to actually write the report than
mere goal intention participants. Similarly, Oettingen, Hönig, and Gollwitzer (2000,
Study 3) observed that implementation intentions helped people to act on their task goals
(i.e., taking a concentration test) on time (e.g., at 10 a.m. in the morning of every
Wednesday over the next four weeks).
Other studies have examined the ability of implementation intentions to foster
goal striving that is unpleasant to perform. For instance, the goal to perform regular
breast examinations (Orbell, Hodgkins, & Sheeran, 1997) or cervical cancer screenings
(Sheeran & Orbell, 2000), resume functional activity after joint replacement surgery
(Orbell & Sheeran, 2000), eat a low-fat diet (Armitage, 2004), recycle (Holland, Aarts, &
Langendam, 2006), and engage in physical exercise (Milne, Orbell, & Sheeran, 2002),
were all more readily acted upon when people had furnished these goals with
implementation intentions. Moreover, implementation intentions were found to help
attainment of goal intentions where it is easy to forget to act (e.g., regular intake of
vitamin pills, Sheeran & Orbell, 1999; the signing of work sheets with the elderly;
Chasteen, Park, & Schwarz, 2001).
Staying on track. Many goals cannot be accomplished by simple discrete one-
shot actions but require that people keep striving for the goal over an extended period of
time. Such staying on track may get very difficult when certain internal (e.g., being
anxious, tired, overburdened) or external stimuli (e.g., temptations, distractions) are not
conducive to goal realization but instead generate interferences that could potentially
derail the ongoing goal striving. Implementation intentions can facilitate the shielding of
such goal striving from interferences that stem from outside the person by suppressing
them (Gollwitzer & Schaal, 1998). For instance, if a person wants to avoid being
unfriendly to a friend who is known to make outrageous requests, she can protect herself
from showing the unwanted unfriendly response by forming suppression-oriented
implementation intentions. Such suppression-oriented implementation intentions may
take various forms: “And if my friend approaches me with an outrageous request, then I
will not respond in an unfriendly manner!” or “…, then I will respond in a friendly
manner!” or “…, then I’ll ignore it!”
But suppression-oriented implementation intentions can also be used to shield
ongoing goal strivings from disruptive inner states. Achtziger, Gollwitzer, and Sheeran
(2008, Study 1) report a field experiment concerned with dieting (Study 1) in which goal
shielding was supported by suppression implementation intentions geared at controlling
potentially interfering inner states (i.e., cravings for junk food). An alternative way of
using implementation intentions to protect ongoing goal striving from getting derailed by
adverse inner states (e.g., inappropriate moods, ego-depletion, irritation) is forming
implementation intentions geared at stabilizing the ongoing goal striving (Bayer &
Gollwitzer, 2008). Using again the example of a person who is approached by her friend
with an outrageous request, let’s assume that this person is also tired or irritated and thus
particularly likely to respond in an unfriendly manner. If this person has stipulated in
advance in an implementation intention what she will converse about with her friend, the
critical interaction may simply run off as planned, and being tired or irritated should fail
to hurt the interaction with her friend.
Calling a halt. Implementation intentions can also help to solve the self-
regulatory problem of calling a halt to a faulty goal striving. People often fail to readily
disengage from chosen means and goals that turn out to be faulty because of a strong self-
justification motive (Brockner, 1992). Such escalation phenomena (also referred to as
“throwing good money after bad”) can be controlled effectively, however, by the use of
implementation intentions that specify exactly when and how to consider a switch to a
different means or a different goal. For instance, Henderson, Gollwitzer, and Oettingen
(2007) asked participants who had chosen a certain strategy for a given task goal to either
form an implementation intention that specified a complex reflection response (“If I
receive disappointing feedback, then I’ll think about how things have been going with my
strategy!”) or a more simple action response (“If I receive disappointing feedback, then
I’ll switch my strategy!”), or merely set the goal to always use the best strategy available.
Henderson et al. observed that action implementation intentions facilitated
disengagement as a response to experienced failure no matter whether there were signs
that things were picking up or that they would continue to stay bleak. Reflection
implementation intention participants, on the other hand, integrated information about
recent improvement in forming their disengagement decision (i.e., they were less willing
to disengage when things were picking up). This study shows that implementation
intentions can be used to curb the escalation of behavioral commitment commonly
observed when people experience failure with a chosen strategy of goal striving. Using
reflection implementation intentions (as compared to action implementation intentions)
even allows for flexible disengagement in the sense that recent turns to the better are
respected in one’s decision to switch (or not) to a different goal striving strategy.
Not overextending oneself. The assumption that implementation intentions
subject behavior to the direct control of situational cues (Gollwitzer, 1993) implies that
the self is not involved 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 implementation intentions, and thus for individuals
using implementation intentions, not over-extending themselves should become easier.
Indeed, using different ego-depletion paradigms, research participants who had used
implementation intentions to self-regulate in a first task do not show reduced self-
regulatory capacity in a subsequent task. Whether the initial self-regulation task was
controlling emotions while watching a humorous movie (Gollwitzer & Bayer, 2000), or
performing a Stroop task (Webb & Sheeran, 2003, Study 1), implementation intentions
successfully preserved self-regulatory resources as demonstrated by greater persistence
on subsequent difficult tasks (i.e., solving difficult anagrams).
Forming implementation intentions has been shown to help people solve the
major problems of goal striving: getting started, staying on track, calling a halt, and not
overextending oneself. Recent research has shown that implementation intentions unveil
these beneficial effects even when goal striving is limited by conditions that seem quite
resistant to change by self-regulatory efforts. For instance, it was observed that
implementation intentions facilitated achieving high scores on math and intelligence tests
(Bayer & Gollwitzer, 2007), even though such performances are known to be limited by a
person’s respective capabilities. Or it was observed that implementation intentions helped
people succeed in sports competitions (Achtziger et al., 2008, Study 2) and negotiations
over limited resources (Troetschel & Gollwitzer, 2007), even though in such competitive
situations a person’s goal striving is limited by the opponents’ behavior.
Finally, implementation intentions were found to help people’s goal striving even
when in cases where effective goal striving is threatened by competing habitual
responses; this seems to be true no matter whether these automatic competing responses
are behavioral (e.g., Cohen, Bayer, Jaudas, & Gollwitzer, 2008; Holland et al. 2006),
cognitive (e.g., Gollwitzer & Schaal, 1998), or affective (e.g., Schweiger Gallo, Keil,
McCulloch, Rockstroh, & Gollwitzer, in press) in nature. The latter findings suggest that
forming implementation intentions turns top-down control by goals into bottom-up
control by the situational cues specified in the if-component of an implementation
intention (Gilbert, Gollwitzer, Cohen, Oettingen, & Burgess, 2008), and they explain why
special samples that are know to suffer from ineffective control of their thoughts,
feelings, and actions (e.g., heroine addicts during withdrawal and schizophrenic patients;
Brandstätter, Lengfelder, & Gollwitzer, 2001, Studies 1 & 2; frontal lobe patients,
Lengfelder & Gollwitzer, 2001; children with ADHD, Gawrilow & Gollwitzer, in press,
Paul, Gawrilow, Zech, et al., 2007) also benefit from forming implementation intentions.
An Intervention to Enhance a Person’s Self-Regulatory Capacity:
Combining Mental Contrasting and Implementation Intentions (MCII)
In recent research we explored whether it is possible to construe an intervention
that teaches people to use on their own an integrated combination of the two
experimentally developed self-regulation strategies of mental contrasting and forming
implementation intentions, so that people can become effective self-regulators of their
goal setting and goal striving. In a first study, middle-aged women were taught MCII as a
meta-cognitive strategy to be applied in everyday life to enhance health-promoting
behavior (i.e., exercising regularly). Moreover, in a second study, MCII was again taught
as a meta-cognitive strategy this time to help students cope with the stresses of college
life; to assess its implications for personality development, broader variables such as
changes in self-discipline and self-esteem were the dependent variables.
In both studies, the combination of MC and II benefited effective goal pursuit. In
order to unfold their beneficial effects, implementation intentions require that strong goal
commitments are in place (Sheeran, Webb, & Gollwitzer, 2005, Study 1), and mental
contrasting creates such strong commitments. Additionally, mental contrasting guarantees
the identification of obstacles that hinder goal striving. These same obstacles may then be
addressed with “if-then” plans by specifying critical situations in the if-component that
are linked to instrumental goal-directed responses in the then-component. Moreover,
mental contrasting increases a person’s readiness to make “if-then” plans (Oettingen et al.
2001; Oettingen, Mayer, & Brinkmann, 2007); accordingly, an intervention such as MCII
which explicitly suggests forming if-then plans after mental contrasting can capitalize on
Effects on Health Behavior in Middle-Aged Professional Women
Middle-aged women were recruited to take part in this study focusing on healthy
lifestyles (Stadler, Oettingen, & Gollwitzer, 2007). Participants were randomly assigned
to either an information-only control group or a MCII intervention group. In the
information-only control group, women learned about the benefits of regular exercise. In
the MCII group, participants received the same information and additionally learned the
MCII technique. Firstly, participants learned the mental contrasting strategy by the help
of an interventionist with respect to the goal of exercising regularly (e.g., going for a run
three times week), and thereafter were instructed to form three implementation intentions
regarding an obstacle standing in the way of exercising (e.g., feeling too tired in the
evening to go for a run) in the form of “if-then” statements: one to overcome the obstacle
generated by mental contrasting (e.g., if I feel exhausted when I get home from work
tonight, then I will put on my running shoes and go for a jog in the neighborhood), one to
prevent this obstacle (e.g., if I hear the clock chime five o’clock, then I will pack my
things and leave the office to go for a run), and one identifying a good opportunity to act
(e.g., if the sun is shining, then I will go for a 30 minute jog in the park). Participants
were then told to apply this MCII procedure to the concern of exercising more by
themselves whenever possible in the weeks to come; participants were free to choose
whatever form of exercising they felt complied to engage in, and they were encouraged to
detect those obstacles that were personally most relevant.
As dependent measures, participants maintained daily behavioral diaries to keep
track of the amount of time they exercised every day. Overall, the MCII technique
enhanced exercise more than the information intervention immediately after the
intervention; this effect remained stable for four, eight, and 16 weeks after the
intervention. The results for exercise behavior indicated that participants in the MCII
group exercised nearly twice as much, that is, one hour more per week than participants
in the information-only control group. Thus, using the MCII technique was effective for
both initial success and long-term maintenance of improving exercise behavior.
Increasing Self-Discipline and Self-Esteem in College Students
Given that MCII as a meta-cognitive strategy improves self-regulation of a
variety of goals, we have examined its effects on broader variables of personality
development: self-discipline and self-esteem. In line with the conceptualization of self-
discipline (self-control) by Tangney, Baumeister, and Boone (2004), we identified the
following key components of self-discipline: time management, project completion, and a
feeling of being on top of things. In addition, as MCII should foster strong goal
commitment and successful goal completion in a variety of areas, we hypothesized that
our MCII intervention might even affect people’s self-esteem. As highlighted by William
James (1890), self-esteem rises and falls as a function of aspirations and successes. The
effect of mental contrasting – a better match between the subjective likelihood of
attaining one’s goals and commitment to them – should bring commitments in line with
objective competence, and utilizing implementation intentions to pursue goals effectively
should provide frequent success. Both of these outcomes should act to raise self-esteem.
Undergraduate participants were either assigned to a MCII intervention group or
to a control group (Oettingen, Barry, Guttenberg, & Gollwitzer, 2007). In the intervention
group participants first learned how to use the mental contrasting strategy, then learned
how to form implementation intentions by identifying the behavior necessary to
overcome or circumvent an obstacle (e.g., a noisy roommate as an obstacle to studying
effectively for an upcoming test) generated during mental contrasting. To do so,
participants imagined a desired outcome and a present obstacle in vivid detail, then
created three “if-then” statements focusing on overcoming the obstacle (e.g., if my
roommate starts to get noisy again tonight, then I will talk to her about her behavior),
preventing the obstacle (e.g., if loud music is on when I come home at eight o’clock
tonight, then I will immediately ask my roommate to turn the music lower), and on
planning to approach the desired outcome (e.g., if I pass a drugstore on the way home,
then I will buy myself a pair of earplugs). Students practiced using the MCII procedure
with the help of an interventionist so they could perform the strategy on their own
regarding a multitude of everyday concerns over the course of one week.
As dependent measures, participants rated self-discipline and self-esteem at two
time points: immediately before the intervention, and once again one week after the
intervention. The results showed that the MCII intervention directly enhanced MCII
participants’ reports of self-discipline and their self-esteem, in comparison to control
group participants, over a mere one-week period. These effects of the MCII intervention
were not moderated by any other measured variables (e.g., sex, age, school year,
depression, perceived stress, life satisfaction, troublesome events, college life
satisfaction, self-efficacy). Presumably, MCII empowered individuals with self-
regulatory skills, first by helping them sensibly commit to goals (i.e., to feasible but not
to unfeasible goals) and secondly by helping them to effectively achieve a goal. Thus,
this powerful yet simple combination of strategies helped the college students to
recognize and realize their potential and feel a sense of self-discipline in their everyday
Psychologists have begun to analyze metacognitive knowledge in such areas as
decision-making and memory (e.g., Bless & Forgas, 2000; Koriat & Goldsmith, 1996;
Nelson & Narens, 1994; Metcalfe & Shimamura, 1994). For example, children
(especially those with little metacognitive knowledge) improve their memory
performance if told about clustering and rehearsal techniques (Schneider, Borkowski,
Kurtz, et al., 1986). The use of metacognitive knowledge should also improve goal
attainment. To date, however, most interventions only tell people to strive for an a priori
defined goal (e.g., weight control, Stice, Shaw, & Marti, 2006; alcohol control, Lock,
2004; forgiveness, Harris, Luskin, Norman, et. al., 2006). In such interventions,
participants are not encouraged to learn strategies to be applied to a multitude of different
potential goals. Rather, they are asked to engage in certain goal-directed thoughts,
feelings, and actions targeted specifically at attaining a given pre-defined desired
In everyday life, however, people commonly wish to attain a multitude of
different outcomes varying in domains (e.g., academic, interpersonal, health), specificity
(Locke & Latham, 1990), temporal distance (Trope & Fishbach, 2000), and framing
(Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Higgins, 1997), among others. Therefore, people should benefit
from metacognitive knowledge about strategies that are content free, and that relate to
prioritizing and planning out all kinds of goal pursuit in advance. The two studies
presented above tested whether MCII can be taught as a meta-cognitive strategy, and both
studies revealed that the combination of mental contrasting and forming implementation
intentions can indeed be taught as a meta-cognitive strategy to meet one’s goals in
general (e.g., exercising more or coping with college life). Moreover, the second study
showed that such meta-cognitive knowledge can even positively affect outcomes related
to personality development such as self-discipline and self-esteem. Furthermore, as these
studies include samples from the United States and Germany, from young adults to
middle-aged individuals, and include diverse domains (academic versus health), it seems
evident that mental contrasting and implementation intentions can be ubiquitously
applied to help people manage the challenges of their everyday lives.
As meaning in life may originate from action more than talk and meditation
(Frankl, 1959/1984), we feel that the self-regulation of goal pursuit is a particularly
important issue. It seems vital that people discriminately set themselves goals that are
desirable and feasible, and then strive for them in an effective manner. For both of these
tasks of goal pursuit there exist effective self-regulatory strategies: mental contrasting for
goal setting and forming implementation intentions for goal striving. Importantly, a
mental contrasting and implementation intentions (MCII) intervention can be used to
teach people the metacognitive knowledge needed to apply these strategies. The
effectiveness of the MCII intervention suggests that people can indeed take charge of
everyday life by self-regulating their goal pursuits.
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