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The Psychology Behind How We Set Goals

Updated: Apr 1



Recently, I found some goals I wrote in 2003.


The thing is, it took me nearly 20 years to accomplish some of them. And I need to be okay with that.


How did I stay motivated? It is because of the Reticular Activating System.


That’s a mouthful, but don’t worry. I will explain this concept to you and provide some practical tips for setting goals in a minute.


Let’s start at the beginning by going over the definition of goals.


Dr. Elliot Berkman, a psychology researcher, defined a goal as any desired outcome that wouldn’t otherwise happen without some kind of intervention. Put simply, Berkman refers to a goal as a detour from the path of least resistance.


Goals are usually things we want but have difficulty achieving even when we know we can. If it wasn’t difficult to achieve your goal, you wouldn’t need it in the first place.


Goals involve behavior change. I’m not talking about engaging in a certain behavior, but instead, a new behavior that is hard. To pursue a goal means you have to do something different than what has been done before.


Several studies of goal-setting psychology have found that specific goals (Mike and Mindy will save $1,000 by June) lead to greater effort and success than vague goals (Mike and Mindy will save money).


Research has also shown that challenging goals are more motivating than goals that are either too easy or too hard, and that has to do with emotional intensity.


There are a few principles at work when it comes to successful goal setting based on psychological and neurological research. Let’s look at each of them.


Goal Setting Theory


Expectancy Value Theory suggests that motivation for a given behavior or action is a result of two things:


  1. Expectancy — How probable it is that a desired outcome is achieved through the behavior or action, and

  2. Value — How much you value the desired outcome.


This actually becomes an equation: Motivation = Expectancy × Value.


According to this theory, you have a better chance of achieving your goals if you expect to reach them and if you see a purpose in reaching them.


Another theory, called Self-Determination Theory, claims that the most motivating purposes for reaching goals have to do with helping others, enhancing relationships, expressing one’s genuine self, enhancing health, developing talents, or learning.


These particular goals often result in less anxiety, more enjoyment as you pursue the goals, and greater achievement. If you want to lose weight, the Self-Determination Theory says that you have a motivating purpose to achieve that goal.


Implementation Intentions Strengthen The Probability of Goal Achievement


Implementation intentions are the if-then plans that specify when, where, and how we will attempt certain goals. Whereas goal intentions take the form ‘I intend to do X’, implementation intentions are focused on an if-then format; ‘If opportunity Y occurs, then I will perform goal directed response Z!’ (Gollwitzer, 1999).


If you intend to save money for a vacation, you will avoid buying unnecessary things by forming the plan ‘If I am tempted to buy unnecessary clothing, then I will think about my vacation!’


An analysis of 94 studies provided evidence that implementation intentions affect personal goals outcomes. If–then plans were successful in achieving a wide variety of desired outcomes, including consumer goals and environmental goals.


Researchers believe that implementation intentions are effective for goal motivation because they create a sense of commitment to the intended behavior.


One study found that forming an implementation intention specifying when and where to watch television news programs increased newscast watching over and above participants who were simply asked to watch newscasts.


However, explicit commitment instructions (‘I hereby make a commitment to complete this study by carrying out the intentions I have made to watch the newscasts’) were as effective in promoting goal-directed behavior as implementation intentions.


So what exactly is going on in the brain to cause this to happen? This question leads to the final principle.


Our Brain Regulates Goal Setting


Neuroscience has shown that there is an area of our brain focused on regulating our goal-setting process and actions.


Setting goals increases our Systolic Blood Pressure (SBP), which makes us willingly work to achieve them. When the goal is complicated and hasn’t yet been achieved, the SBP gets an enhanced spike that increases our eagerness to act and achieve it.


Challenging types of goals are different. They do not result in a spike for ready action. However, other studies explain what happens in our brains to motivate us to set and achieve goals.


For instance, the Medial Prefrontal Cortex (MPFC) is essential to the goal-setting process. Activation of the MPFC makes it possible to think about what we need to do at this moment to reach our goals. We then set the targets accordingly.


If the goal seems too far away, the activation of the Medial Prefrontal Cortex lowers significantly, which explains why we often lose interest in sticking to our long-term goals or lose our focus on what might be the best ways to achieve them.


This is where the Reticular Activating System (RAS) comes in.


The RAS is a part of the brain that plays a crucial role in controlling our goal-setting actions. It is a cluster of cells found at the base of the brain. This system processes all the information related to the things that need our immediate attention.


What is so interesting about the RAS is that it gives us signs. The example given by researchers is a person whose goal is to start a family. That person is likely to see more couples and families around them.


This occurs because of the activation of the RAS.


Prior to making the decision to start a family, the RAS would inherently have filtered out any such information. The person may have seen many couples walking past before but never really paid attention to them until deciding to set a general goal of beginning a family.


Practical Application


The RAS functions in two ways when it comes to goal setting:


1. Writing goals


RAS is initiated by the easy act of writing our goals down on paper. Seeing our goals clearly on paper, feeling the pen in our hand, or just thinking about writing our goals activates the RAS functions and ensures that we proceed with our achievement.


2. Planning goals


Imagination is crucial when setting goals. Studies show that people who have the power to visualize their conscious goals before setting them trigger their brains at a higher level.


Continuously imagining what it would be like to succeed and reminding ourselves of our goals causes a consistent activation in the RAS and promotes effective goal setting (Berkman & Lieberman, 2009).


The RAS activation helps us focus the mind on only the pieces of information related to the goals we seek to achieve.


Neurologists working on the science of goal setting have shown that the brain cannot spot the difference between reality and imagined reality. When we provide ourselves an image of the goal we want to reach, the brain starts to believe it's real.


Eventually, the brain starts pushing us to take action to make the state reality, and the goals lead to success (Berkman, 2018).


It is possible to set goals that are specific in a way that increases the chances of success. Smart goals that make sense on a psychological level are more likely to lead to a satisfying end, whether they are team goals or individual ones.


Sources:

Berkman, E. T. (2018). Value-based choice: An integrative, neuroscience-informed model of health goals. Psychology & Health, 33(1), 40–57. https://doi-org.lopes.idm.oclc.org/10.1080/08870446.2017.1316847

Berkman, E. T., & Lieberman, M. D. (2009). The neuroscience of goal pursuit: Bridging gaps between theory and data. In G. B. Moskowitz & H. Grant (Eds.), The psychology of goals. (pp. 98–126). Guilford Press.

Chowdhury, M. R. (2022, November 17). The Science & Psychology of goal-setting 101. PositivePsychology.com. Retrieved January 13, 2023, from https://positivepsychology.com/goal-setting-psychology/

Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American

Psychologist, 54, 493–503.

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