Autonomous Goal Operation

Lara Boyle | May 12, 2011

Each day, we often set personal goals: “by next year, I will lose ten pounds”; “tomorrow I will run five miles”; or “I will get an A on the next organic chemistry test.” Having goals gives us a sense of purpose, and the achievement of those goals grants us a feeling of pride. Despite the importance of these goals to everyday human behavior, several questions about goals persist. How are goals influenced by one’s unconscious desires? How do goals alter one’s personal tastes and preferences?

Professor of Psychology John Bargh addresses these questions in a recent paper published in Social Cognition. Although goals are often formed through conscious thought, Bargh theorizes that an autonomous goal system operates beyond the range of conscious control. He argues that all forms of life have an ultimate goal to survive and that goals were necessary before the evolution of conscious thought. “Because [goals] had to operate unconsciously, there was no consciousness telling the goal when to start, when it was over, [or] what to do. It had to do it all by itself,” said Bargh. He argues that this system has not been lost during evolution.

There are consequences to this autonomous goal system. Research suggests that once a goal is “active,” it can alter one’s information processing and behavior to aid in the achievement of that goal. Bargh suggests that the autonomous goal system is thus selfish and deceptive because it alters one’s behavior and perception of reality without regarding the consequences of seeing reality in inaccurate or conflicting ways.

In one experiment, Bargh and his colleagues demonstrate how goal operation unconsciously guides judgements. Participants viewed a videotape of an interview with the intent of determining whether the candidate was appropriate for the job. Participants were told that the job was for either a waiter or a crime news reporter. In the video, the interview was interrupted by a person who was either rude and demanding or polite and courteous. Rather than rating the job candidate, which was the goal the subjects had been consciously pursuing, the subjects rated how much they liked the interrupter.

Mean response times (RTs) to adjectives as a function of adjective valence, achievement condition, and goal-status condition. Photo courtesy of Professor John Bargh, Yale Department of Psychology.

The results of this study showed an interesting trend. Subjects who evaluated the waiter job candidate rated the polite interrupter as more likable than the rude interrupter. Subjects who evaluated the crime reporter job position demonstrated the opposite; they rated the rude interrupter as more likable than the polite interrupter. This can be explained by subjects’ conception of good waiters and crime reporters – waiters are ideally polite and courteous, while crime reporters are aggressive and tough. Because the interrupter’s personality matched the qualities of the person to whom the conscious goal applied, the subjects found themselves rating the rude interpreter more highly than they would under different circumstances. Bargh explains, “The goal doesn’t know who the focal person is when it’s operating; it’s in motion. And when the goal is in motion, it will compute its evaluation of anyone based on any relevant behavior.” This autonomous goal system can affect one’s life, whether by altering the relationships and friendships one pursues or by changing one’s perception of the world.

So whether we are aiming to run more each day or ace that organic chemistry exam, we must remember that our body has its own goals in mind. The world we see may not align with reality, but the mind does not care as long as these changes in perception facilitate one thing: the attainment.