Archive for February, 2013



Goals do not exert simple and direct effects on human behavior.  If we define goals as all objects and events toward which a person reacts with positive or negative emotion-then it’s clear that not all goals necessarily exert much influence.  However, people do become committed to pursuing goals, and then they are very likely to act to attain them.  This goal attainment process is characterized by thought and emotion centering on the desired outcome.  Until committed, there are a universe of goals out there- think of a person looking for a mate- there are many possible, a few probable, and finally, only one person, and a commitment.  Unless that person turns out to be disappointing, a committed person does not pay much attention to the fields of probables still out there.  The bulk of the work towards a goal, say, of having a long-term relationship, comes after the commitment.  Which suggests that of the two phases, commitments are more important than goals.  You can have many goals, but few commitments.

So, what is commitment?  How can we predict it?  There are some regularities to the process of forming a commitment:

1/ Given a choice of alternative goals to strive for, people tend to prefer those that they value, and that they believe that they have a reasonable chance to obtain.  For example, a woman is likely to seek a career to which she is to some extent attracted, and in which she has a fair chance of succeeding.  If you were advising this woman as to the probable success of her efforts, you would have to know three things:

The value of each alternative career to this woman.

The woman’s beliefs about her chances of success, and the price in time, effort, and resources the person believes she would have to pay for each alternative.

An incentive becomes a goal after the person commits to it.  For instance, I may regard a vacation to South America as an attractive incentive, but until it becomes a goal, I will not be checking the papers for package deals, calling travel agents, and buying tour guides to the pyramids.  After it becomes a goal, a commitment to the goal starts to alert me to all the ways that the trip affects my life.  For instance, I pay attention to my exercise routine because I wish to climb a volcano.  I forsake a Starbuck’s latte habit after calculating the savings- money that can go to the trip fund.  If I go to a party and someone mentions Peru, I go over and make inquiries.  In this way, we find that commitment focuses us on anything pertaining to our goal.  People can become obsessed with their goals to the point of neglecting other important items.

As evolved organisms, we do come equipped to react to specific situations with some specific kinds of behavior that need not be learned.  It is a vague schematic but it runs something like this: for instance when you find your efforts to do something are blocked (the situation), the individual tends to repeat the behavior with greater force.  Somewhat the “if it doesn’t go in, get a bigger hammer” approach.  We see it when a tourist tries to communicate in a foreign language; saying it louder does NOT make meaning more clear.

Joy and satisfaction are associated with achieving a goal or mastering a challenge.  This response is expected, as are characteristic physiological changes, facial expressions, and postures.  Who can mistake the emotion expressed by a football player making a touchdown?  Or that of a new father as he lifts his child? We use emotion to interpret the value of the goal or incentive.  If it elicits strong emotional affect, it is more likely to have high value and to be committed to.  Let me repeat that: we value objects, people, and events if they arouse emotion.  Even things that normally evoke little emotional response are treated as important if they lead to a valued goal.

Commitment and depression: what if you blocked from achieving a valued goal?  Many people experience depression as part of a normal adaptive process of personal reorganization following a significant defeat.  Workers in jobs where they have little sense of control and less satisfaction have something in common with people dissolving a marital bond.  When people are unhappy with their situation, and feel trapped in it, they experience emotions, thoughts, and behaviors characteristic of alienation.  They believe themselves powerless with respect to the job or marriage feel themselves unable to produce behaviors expected of them, and cannot seem to resolve their problems.  Escape into depression and alienation produces the following patterns: they cease to put effort into the seemingly insoluble problems, they seem faceless, without energy or enthusiasm, or any positive emotional response and are bored and easily distractible.  At this point, work enrichment or marital therapy are not likely to produce good results.  The person can choose to live at a very low level of joy, seek satisfaction elsewhere, leave the situation entirely, directly confront their own feelings, or commit suicide.  Or they can directly affect mood through drugs- a tempory solution that may become permanent.

Why are goals and commitments so important?  Because when people say their lives are meaningful, they generally mean that they are emotionally involved with important relationships, and actively involved in the pursuit of goals with the power to command strong affective responses.  We need to feel strongly to live fully.