Sunday, April 24, 2005


Goals are complex and elusive beasts, two properties that make them difficult to study. Yet it is their complexity and elusiveness that makes it imperative that we study them, if we are to understand human behavior and cognition. They are complex because they are intertwined with several different systems, including the perceptual, cognitive, motivational, affective, and motor sytems, and at a higher-level, have complex relationships to each other, as well as the means with which we satisfy them, and the contexts in which they are activated. Thus, in order to understand the workings of those other systems, it is imperative that we understand how they interact with our goals. Goals are elusive because, in many cases, either they themselves, or many of the aspects of the context in which they are activated, are unavailable to conscious awareness. Thus, our introspective accounts of our behavior, along with the self-reports about the motivations, goals, and reasons behind choices and behaviors are not always veridical. Their effects on cognition and behavior are therefore not always obvious to observers, including experimenters. It is important, then, to study goals more systematically in order to fully understand their influences.

Given the seemingly obvious importance of understanding goals in order to understand cognition and behavior, one would think that people like cognitive scientists and economists, who make their livings trying to understand cognition and behavior, would have spent a great deal of time studying goals systematically. As it turns out, neither have. Instead, cognitive scientists, perhaps associating goals exclusively with things like affect and motivation, have tended to ignore goals in favor of abstracted cognitive mechanisms. Economists, on the other hand, in their focus on concepts like utility and instrumentality, have tended to either ignore goals, or purposefuly create situations in which goals are obvious are universal, in order to avoid having to deal with goals directly (think, for example, of all the Kahneman and Tversky work that deals with risk aversion and similar phenomena, in which the goals involved, e.g., walking away with more money, are fixed in advanced so that mechanisms can be studied without considering specific goals). For the most part, the only researchers who have spent a lot of time studying goals are social psychologists. Yet these researchers have tended to dissociate goals from all of the things that cognitive scientists and economists might study, instead treating goals as isolated and static mental entities1.

Recently, these trends have begun to change in at least two of those disciplines (cognitive science and social psychology). In social psychology, Kruglanski, et al. (2002), for example, have called on social psychologists to begin taking a "motivation as cognition" approach to the study of goals, as opposed to the "motivation versus cognition" approach that has characterized social psychological theories. Here is how they describe this approach:
We assume that motivational phenomena are a joint function of cognitive principels (that goal-systems share with other cognitive systems) as they are applied to uniquely motivational contents, that is, to goals and to means. Put differently, the cognitive properties of goal-systems set the constraints within the motivational properties that may express themselves. (p. 334)
In cognitive science, Markman and Brendl2 have defined goals in the information-processing and cybernetic systems language that defines most cognitive scientific theory. For example, they wrote:
Goals are representational structures that guide the system in its pursuit of an end state or a reference state. When the end state associated with a goal is desired, the goal is in approach goal; that is, the feedback loop aims at reducing the psychological distance of the organism to the end state. However, when the end state associated with the goal is undesired, the goal is an avoidance goal. In this case, the system is geared to increase its psychological distance to the end state, which can be reprsented as a feedfoward loop. (p. 98)
They go on like this, but you get the point. When described like this, as representational states, goals aren't simply mental processes/entities that influence cognition; they are cognitive. The benefits of treating goals as cognitive, rather than something else (affective, non-cognitive motivational, or whatever) are many. It allows us to bring to bear our knowledge of representations and cognition on the study of goals, which, given the snails pace at which that study has progressed since the 1930s, can only be a good thing. For example, as Kruglanski, et al. (2002) noted, when treating goals as representations, we can treat their connections to contexts, actions, and other goals as similar to those of other types of representations, thus better understanding how goals are activated, how they activate the actions used to satisfy them, and how they strengthen or inhibit the activation of other representations (e.g., other goals). Perhaps the greatest benefit is that discussing goals in cognitive terms makes it OK for cognitive scientists to study them, without worrying about getting wrapped up in issues they generally choose to avoid, like emotion/affect.

And so the cognitive scientific study of goals has recently begun, though most of the researchers are still social psychologists by training. In subsequent posts, I will try to describe some of the key aspects of goals that the "motivation as cognition" approach has discovered or highlighted from past research. In particular, Markman and Brendl3 have highlighted "nine phenomena that a theory of goals and motivation must explain" (Quoted from their Table 1):
  1. People can talk about their actions.
  2. Talking about actions can interfere with choices
  3. People have difficulting predicting future preferences and future affective states.
  4. People express attitudes, but their attitudes do not always coincide with their future actions.
  5. Affective states are taken to reflect underlying motivational states, though they correlate with such states only loosely.
  6. States of the world can prime goals.
  7. Goals prime means.
  8. Means can remind people of goals.
  9. Explicit intentions to perform actions can influence behavior.
The first five phenomena relate to the elusiveness of goals that I mentioned in the first sentence of this post. The remaining phenomena are related to the cognitive structure of the goal system. In the next post, I will discuss the relationship between goals and consciousness, or the elusiveness of goals. In the third post, I'll talk about the models that Kruglanski, et al. (2002) and Markman and Brendl (in press) have developed to describe the cognitive structure of the goal system. Along the way, I'll try to describe a lot of empirical research on goals. By the end, I hope that it will be clear to everyone how important the study of goals is for cognitive science, and any discipline that wants to understand the human mind.

1 Kruglanski, A.W., Shah, J.Y., Fishbach, A., Friedman, R., Chun, W.Y., & Sleeth-Keppler, D. (2002). A theory of goal systems. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 34, 331-378.
2 Markman, A.B., & Brendl, C.M. (2000). The influence of goals on value and choice. In D.L. Medin (Ed.) The Psychology of Learning and Motivation, Vol. 39. (pp. 97-129) San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
3 Markman, A.B., & Brendl, C.M. (in press). Goals, policies, preferences, and actions. To appear in F.R. Kardes, P.M. Herr, & J. Nantel (Eds.) Applying Social Cognition to Consumer-focused Strategy. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


Clark Goble said...

Isn't the issue of goals the very issue of teleology in mind in general? It seems like many skip goals and related things because of the very problem of intentionality (however conceived).

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