We experience our actions as caused by a self or our consciousness. We believe that our self-agency drives behavior and attention. And, that this set of traits is specific to humans. While other animals act without reason, they strive to meet basic needs and nothing else. Whereas, our ability to set goals and focus is a fundamental component of our conscious thought.
One of the ways we display agency is through attention. We direct it towards relevant stimuli while ignoring irrelevant aspects of our environment.
If we processed every byte of information in our environment, it would send our brain into overload. Our brain can’t analyze this much information. Instead, our attention determines what we’ll process and what to discard. Effectively making attention the gatekeeper of information.
Moreover, goal setting decides what this gatekeeper lets in. Information relevant to goal attainment receives far more focus than irrelevant information. Our goals guide attention, which then serves to limit our inflow of information.
Behavior and Attention
We often equate attention to consciousness. If you pay attention to something for long enough, it enters conscious thought. Like when you stare off daydreaming until you notice someone staring back. Immediately your conscious tries to respond to this new input. Probably by telling you to look away in embarrassment. In this situation, the other person had visual attention, but not conscious awareness. Eventually, the two came together; researchers call this full activation.
However, this doesn’t always happen. A thought may enter consciousness, but fail to garner any attention (surface activation). An excellent example of this is the free association in diffuse learning. If you’ve ever remembered the answer to a question long after it was useful, you’ve experienced surface activation.
Or, the opposite, deep activation, a state where we suppress our thoughts, but they still alter our experience. For instance, you may be frustrated over an argument, but you make an effort to forget about it. While you do so, your behavior likely drips with exasperation. Instead of confronting your feelings head-on, you let them influence your social interactions.
Goals and Self-Agency
Traditionally, we associate goal pursuit with conscious intent. Each of us acts as though our behaviors are self-driven. That we are the agents of change in our lives. Because of this, the relationship between goals and the unconscious brings up an interesting question. How do goals affect our subconscious if they do at all?
Bos et al. set out to answer this exact question. They wanted to know how goal setting shaped unconscious thought.
In their first experiment, participants received information about a decision they’d later make and split into two groups. Each group went through an intensive cognitive task before making their decision. One group knew they’d need to make decisions after the task. They told the other group that the information was no longer relevant.
The structure provided one group with an explicit goal to remember the information. But, the cognitive task made it impossible to hold all the information in working memory. This design forces the brain to allocate working memory to the distraction. Then decide whether or not to move the supplied information to the subconscious.
The group primed to keep the information made more decisions maximizing their benefit. It shows they were able to maintain the information outside of working memory, likely in their subconscious. Aarts and Dijksterhuis noted, “unconscious thought is a goal dependent process. Without a goal to reach a decision, unconscious thought is not elicited.”
Goals, Attention, and Consciousness
Goals affect behavior and attention because of their place in knowledge networks. This network includes purpose, intentions, situational cues, and goal-related systems. Each of which interacts with the environment in their way.
Knowledge networks support goal-aligned behavior without self-agency or conscious expectations. Instead, they lay a framework of triggers meant to elicit particular responses.
We can use a fundamental goal like “going to the gym more” as an example. The representations of which take the shape of actions, like exercise, procedures like going to the gym, and objects like running shoes. Each of which acts as contextual or behavioral information to trigger the subconscious.
Once those triggers activate, your behaviors start to align with your goal. This process brings your actions to the conscious level and shifts your focus. You reach full activation.
So, self-agency can arise from conscious goals and unconscious goal representation. Triggers developed during goal setting lead us to associate actions with conscious thought. But, in reality, it may be environmental cues eliciting a reaction.
Necessarily, goal planning and our environment play a substantial role in goal attainment.
Unconsciously Influencing Goals and Behavior
Our current notion of self places consciousness as the pilot directing action, intention, and attention.
However, behavior can be unconsciously motivated. Goal representations, framed in a positive light, can promote associated practices. And, since the reason for the behavior is unknown, the brain creates intentions to match it.
Researchers, Custer and Aarts, designed an experiment to manipulate the unconsciousness. Each participant had specific tasks conditioned as positive, negative, or neutral. Participants engaged with “positive” conditions more frequently than others.
After the experiment, participants were unable to describe why they desired specific tasks. Nor could they explain why they made positive associations with their behavior.
Individuals primed with positive associations were more diligent than those with neutral priming. This effect only occurs in individuals with low motivation to complete the task.
The words researchers used to induce positive framing were simple. They included words like; sweet, kind, funny, pleasant, and enjoyable.
Their findings align with “motivational theory.” A theory which assumes positive incentives is a property of goal representation. As behaviors are positively primed, they become their own goal. We feel better for doing them. Positive framing creates unconscious motivation for goal-aligned behaviors.
“In summary,” says Aarks, “when the representation of a behavior becomes unconsciously associated with positive affect, it becomes a goal that motivates people to maintain and achieve it.”
Goal Framing as an Attention Modifier
Our brain has a negativity bias. Negative experiences, interactions, and memories are a magnet for attention. Anyone who’s had bad memories reemerge right before bed knows what I’m talking about.
As unfortunate as these experiences can be, a negative bias makes evolutionary sense. We strive to avoid harm and threatening circumstances. One of the ways to do this is to remember similar situations and rehearse avoidant behavior.
This process used to serve a higher function. Now, many of us can depend on society for that function. The situations our bias focuses on now are often far more abstract. To the point, they can even hinder goal striving.
When goals feel too lofty or represent an adverse impact on our lives, they cause stress. But, pressure can be a negative or a positive depending on our perception. If we view the stress as a response to a challenging goal, it becomes a form of support called “eustress.” If we see stress as a threat response, our subconscious will do what it can to avoid the situation.
This logic presents a bit of a puzzle. Since negativity bias is unconscious, and our unconscious affects behavior, how do we prevent it? Well, it may not be possible. Instead, we should plan for our negative bias.
One technique to counter bias is goal framing. In 1995 Roney et al., studied the impact of outcome perception on motivation and goal pursuit. Each experiment showed that positive framing increases persistence and performance.
In 2002, Drach-Zahavy and Erez found that interpretation of a situation has a significant impact on performance. Individuals primed to focus on failure had lower achievement than those focusing on success.
Thus, goal planning should include an understanding of how you’ll reach the endpoint — the necessary steps to do so. And what you will do in the event of setbacks and failure.
Social Relationships Affect Behavior
Research demonstrates a pervasive effect of priming due to the environment. Up to now, I’ve focused on objects, locations, and procedures. But, exposure to social relationships can also change behavior.
Research shows how partners, family, and friends elicit different responses. In 2003, Fitzsimons & Bargh primed research participants with their parents’ names. This exposure increased their motivation to achieve. In another study, exposure to the names of friends triggered behaviors related to helping others.
Another experiment demonstrated the effects of certain social groups on goal striving. Nurses primed to think about their work were more likely to engage in helping others, while stockbrokers focused more on goals associated with earning money.
Habits & Conscious Activation
Habit formation is an integral piece of goal striving. Evidence shows that goal-related behaviors only activate after they become a habit.
Ultimately cues have the most significant impact once their associated behavior is habitual. These associations come from simple, repetitive actions. Things like turning on the television when you get home are triggered by kicking off your shoes or noticing the remote. Or, a trip to the gym triggered by a particular time of day.
These habits can be a double-edged sword. If positive intentions become a habit, they’re more pronounced over time. The harmful plans, or patterns we develop subconsciously, do the same.
Either way, habits, and their associated triggers are often unknown to us. We act and makeup reasons for our behavior after the fact. We rarely take the time to understand our true intentions.
Be Mindful of Your Environment
The review of goals, attention, and unconscious makes it clear how our environment affects us. It’s the essence of advertising and the attention economy. Greater exposure to triggers increases their effect on ingrained knowledge networks. To the point that we develop habitual responses to cues we never intended to.
Without goals to guide our subconscious, we fall to the whims of our environment. Our behaviors and intentions feed off whatever we offer our attention and consciousness.
I’d encourage each of us to be mindful of our environment and our attention intake. What we believe is a conscious choice, driven by self-agency, may be habits primed by our environment. Without direction, we allow others to manipulate our decisions. Often in ways, we can’t understand, but make excuses for.
Doom and gloom aside, these same negatives can benefit us. Proper management of your environment provides outsized benefits to goal attainment. However, you’ll need to spend time goal-setting, limiting outside influence, and practicing self-awareness. If you do so, you’ll find yourself maximizing productivity while minimizing distraction and unwanted habits.