Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Implementation intentions

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Implementation intentions:
What are implementation intentions and what role do they play in motivating goal striving?

Overview[edit | edit source]

New year’s resolutions are an infamous example of individuals intending to make a change in their life, yet these resolutions are notorious for falling through and being abandoned. Yet these resolutions aren’t made with the intention to fail. Typical new year’s resolutions, such as promising to yourself that you’ll eat healthy, are what Gollwitzer (1999) described as a goal intention – the intention to reach a behaviour or outcome.

An Implementation Intention is a more structured and subordinate to a goal intention as it addresses the when, where and how of responses leading towards a goal (Gollwitzer, 1999). It looks at how you will respond in certain situations in order to take steps towards goal attainment. A new year’s resolution for eating healthy with an implementation intention, instead of promising not to eat unhealthy, may be rather a subordinate task such as ‘when I get up from work to go eat chocolate from the kitchen, I’ll make sure to take an apple instead and go sit back down’.

By establishing this link between a certain situation and a predetermined behaviour, the process of calling upon motivation and making a decision with goal attainment in mind is immediate and efficient (Brandstatter, Lengfelder, & Gollwitzer, 2001). This makes for an efficient self-regulation tool, which lends itself to various common areas for goal striving more than others.

This chapter goes in depth on what an implementation intention is including a detailed background on the area of research which gave birth to the concept and how it is different from a goal intention, on how it aids in goal attainment including in-depth look at what processes are underlying the ‘if-then’ plan that make it so effective and how they interact, and how it is can be applied effectively to real goals including specific areas typical to goal striving where the use of implementation intentions is of most benefit.

What are implementation intentions?[edit | edit source]

Implementation intentions is[grammar?] a self-regulatory strategy conceptualized by Peter Gollwitzer, who summarized it as a “passing of one’s behaviour on to the environment” that are effective when it comes to alleviating problems of getting started towards a goal (Gollwitzer, 1999).

An implementation intention is subordinate to a goal intention – a goal intention relate only to the attainment of a desired outcome, having the structure of “I intend to reach X” where “X” is a certain desired outcome or behaviour (Brandstatter, Lengfelder, & Gollwitzer, 2001). Implementation intentions are formed in the service of goal intentions and specify the when, where and how of goal-directed responses, having the structure of “If situation X is encountered, then I will perform behaviour Y”, with the behaviour contributing to the achievement of an overarching goal.

Peter Gollwitzer (1999) was researching how good intentions can be implemented effectively, using the previous example of New Year’s resolutions as a prominent case for why good intentions have a bad reputation. Gollwitzer pursued a solution to the struggle of following through with good intentions, conducting research into how good intentions can be implemented effectively, concluding that successful goal attainment was pinned on two key aspects of goal pursuit that needed to be addressed.

The first was addressing problems associated with getting started and persisting until the goal is reached (Gollwitzer, 1999). This raised the question of how goals, once set, can be effectively pursued. Research at the time showed three key variables leading to better performances in goal striving:

  • The first was the specificity of the goal – goal attainment was found to be more likely when individuals set themselves challenging, specific goals as compared with challenging yet vague goals (Locke & Latham, 1990, as cited in Gollwitzer, 1999). This goal-specificity effect is a result of feedback and self-monitoring advantages.
  • The second was the framing of the goal as either a learning or performance goal. Goal striving was more effective when goals were framed as a learning goal – learning how to perform a task, over a performance goal – finding out capability through task performance (Dweck, 1996, as cited in Gollwitzer, 1999).
  • The third was the framing of the goal as either a promotion goal or a prevention goal. Goal striving was more effective when goals were framed as promotion goals – focusing on the presence or absence of positive outcomes, over prevention goals – focusing on the presence or absence of negative outcomes (Higgins, 1997, as cited in Gollwitzer, 1999).

The second aspect was addressing problems with self-regulation in regard to initiating goal-directed behaviours and bringing them to a successful ending. This highlighted two further variables leading to better performances in goal striving:

  • The first, an individual’s ability to shield goal pursuit from distractions – when no distractions are in the individual’s environment, goal pursuit is more effective (Kuhl, 1984, as cited in Gollwitzer, 1999).
  • The second, an individual’s ability to cope with conflicting goals – ability to come up with creative integrations of multiple goals, so they can be achieved simultaneously with little to no conflict, are more likely to meet their goals (Cantor & Blanton, 1996, as cited in Gollwitzer, 1999).

It was based on this research that implementation intentions were formed.

How implementation intentions aid in goal attainment[edit | edit source]

The core issues of goal framing - making goals specific, and having a learning and promotion focus, as well as shielding goal pursuit through self-regulation and addressing conflicting goals are all addressed through use of implementation intentions.

Getting started is often the most difficult part of goal striving. Individuals often miss out on what are good opportunities to progress towards their goals. This is because these opportunities are typically out of the norm, hence the need for change, and presented in a short window (Brandstatter, Lengfelder, & Gollwitzer, 2001). Something simple like not taking a snack from the cupboard to progress towards a weight loss goal will not happen simply because it isn't habit. Due to the desired behaviour not being automatic, said[awkward expression?] behaviour is at higher risk of not being carried out - individuals when making such ‘on the spot’ decisions will typically scrutinize the suitability of the present situation and the behaviours appropriate to the present situation. An anticipative decision on the contrary is less restricted as they allow for incorporation of the whole array of possible opportunities and instrumental behaviours and the individual can confirm beforehand the most suitable behaviours and the most suitable opportunities or windows for said behaviours (Gollwitzer, 1999).

An implementation intention involves this anticipative decision making and addresses this lack of automation, having very similar functional characteristics to a habit - an immediate and efficient execution of a specific behaviour on appearance of the previously determined specific situation (Brandstatter, Lengfelder, & Gollwitzer, 2001). This eliminates the need for individuals to recall upon their motivation and to extensively consider their course of action, but rather upon recognising the specific scenario both motivation and decision are automatic and immediate (Achtziger, Gollwitzer, & Sheeran, 2008).

The different variables identified by Gollwitzer (1999) in regard to how goals are framed are resolved by this. By specifying the when, where, and how of a behaviour, the issue of specificity is addressed (Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006). The very nature of an implementation intention as supplementary to a goal intention gives any implementation intention a learning focus rather than a performance goal. Though a goal intention can be either a promotion goal or a prevention goal, an implementation intention always has the focus of goal striving – consequentially, the implementation intention always has a focus on the attainment of something positive – the end goal.

An implementation intention functions as an extremely effective self-regulation tool, due to the immediacy and efficiency of the response process when the implementation intention is formed. Due to the automatic and swift response when faced with opportunities to progress towards goal attainment the goal attainment process as a whole is shielded from distractions, whether that be in the form of unwanted thoughts and feelings or potential conflict with other objectives (Achtziger, Gollwitzer, & Sheeran, 2008).

Oettingen, Hönig, & Gollwitzer (2000) identified the significance of the link being established between an anticipated situation and the desired behaviour – the forming of the if-then plan – and not simply anticipating the opportunity in which to act as a significant part in facilitation this immediate and efficient action initiation. By establishing this mental link between situation and behaviour the situation acts as a cue for the behaviour (Ajzen, Czasch, & Flood, 2009). Without all aspects of the implementation intention, the need to consider a course of action is not addressed.

Practical application of implementation intentions[edit | edit source]

Implementation intentions can be applied in nearly any goal pursuit, as long as there are habits to form or change which can contribute towards the attainment of the goal in question. Yet there are common areas of goal pursuit where implementation intentions have the strongest impact and deliver the most benefits to the individuals utilizing them for self-regulation. Goal pursuits that involve straying from norm and habit and engaging in behaviours which are unpleasant, either in a direct manner, such as behaviours such as daily exercise or cancer screening, or in an indirect manner, such as not eating unhealthy food (Oettingen & Gollwitzer, 1998)[grammar?].

Health Behaviours[edit | edit source]

Health behaviours are often the most prominent examples of goal attainment greatly bolstered by implementation intentions, due to the significant degree of change and the sacrifice involved, involving significant and often unpleasant changing of habits.

Implementation intentions address many of the difficult aspects of sticking to a diet – paying attention and self-control around what one is eating, as well as making a decision on what foods to eat in place of anything being replaced from the normal diet (Adriaanse, Vinkers, de Ridder, Hox, & de Wit, 2011). Eating is a significant part of everyday life and depending on the extent to which an individual wishes to change what they consume, individuals committing to diets can be faced with committing to entirely new meals throughout each day, which involves a lot of decision making on itself, as well as adjusting to not eating what they used to eat and perhaps eating at different times or eating different amounts than what they are used to. The difficulty and complexity involved makes attainment of such a goal particularly susceptible to self-regulatory failures (Adriaanse, Vinkers, de Ridder, Hox, & de Wit, 2011). Adriaanse, Vinkers, de Ridder, Hox, & de Wit (2011) found considerable evidence supporting that implementation intentions are an effective supporting strategy, particularly for promoting healthy eating patterns, but less so for diminishing unhealthy eating patterns. This is in line with the aforementioned influence or promotion versus prevention goal framing. Adriaanse, de Ridder, & de Wit (2009) emphasized the significance of identifying personally relevant reasons for unhealthy eating in order for implementation intentions to be effective in this case.

Physical exercise, often paired with healthy eating, also benefits from the promotion of positive behaviours that are out of the norm. Belanger-Gravel, Godin, & Amireault (2013) concluded that implementation intentions are an effective strategy for promoting physical activity, due to it addressing the typical ‘initial reluctance to act’ and ‘getting derailed’ common to those who failure to achieve physical exercise objectives. Bagozzi & Edwards (2000) also found that implementation intentions were effective for difficult to implement behaviours, using physical exercise as the example. Cancer-screening attendance has also been improved by implementation intentions, with women who set themselves the goal of attending breast cancer screening within a month being much more likely to do so with the use of implementation intentions (Oettingen & Gollwitzer, 1998).

Cognitive Stress[edit | edit source]

Another prominent example of when implementation intentions can be effective is when following through with behaviours is hampered by significant levels of cognitive stress and the consequent distraction, disorganization and forgetfulness associated with it. The automatic aspect of implementation intentions can help follow through with goal-oriented behaviours when unfocused and distracted. University students who were part of an experiment where cognitive load was induced were much more effective at efficiently and effectively carrying out a goal-directed behaviour (Brandstatter, Lengfelder, & Gollwitzer, 2001). The same beneficial influence of implementation intentions was found for a stronger example of cognitive stress in the form of schizophrenia patients, who were also able to efficiently and effectively carry out goal-directed behaviours when aided by implementation intentions (Brandstatter, Lengfelder, & Gollwitzer, 2001).  Implementation intentions have been found to help with procrastination for individuals seeking employment (van Hooft, Born, Taris, & van der Flier, 2005). By automatically recalling upon motivation, procrastination is not an issue, and by removing the need to consider options, goal pursuit is shielded when under cognitive stress.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Implementation intentions are a self-regulatory strategy covering the when, where and how of a response to a certain event, taking on the structure of "In 'X' situation, I will do 'Y'".  Implementation intentions were conceptualized by Peter Gollwitzer in his research regarding the obstacles to goal attainment, where he concluded that the initiation of a goal-oriented behaviour and self regulation in regard to the shielding of goal pursuit from distractions and conflicts were the primary issues individuals faced when attempting to achieve their objectives. Research into the background of why revealed some key variables in the successful pursuit of goals were what implementation intentions were intended to address. By establishing a mental link between a behaviour and a specific, anticipated situation, exhibiting said behaviour is both immediate and efficient and removes the need for summoning up motivation and considering options on the spot. Changes that are difficult and unpleasant are a good target for implementation intentions as they often alleviate the difficulty and remove second-guessing from the picture. The use of this self-regulatory strategy should be considered when striving for any goal, but health goals in particular, as well as when striving for goals under significant cognitive stress, are the situations where implementation intentions have the most significant positive impact.

Answer true or false for the following questions

1 A goal intention is subordinate to an Implementation Intention.


2 The two main problems in goal striving are initiation of goal-oriented behaviours and self regulation.


3 An implementation intention only requires that the individual think of certain situation to exhibit goal-oriented behaviours.


4 Health behaviours are the primary area where implementation intentions are employed.


5 Implementation intention are ineffective for people with psychological disorders.


See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Achtziger, A., Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2008). Implementation intentions and shielding goal striving from unwanted thoughts and feelings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(3), 381-393.

Adriaanse, M. A., de Ridder, D. T., & de Wit, J. B. (2009). Finding the Critical Cue: Implementation Intentions to Change One’s Diet Work Best When Tailored to Personally Relevant Reasons for Unhealthy Eating. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(1), 60-71.

Adriaanse, M. A., Vinkers, C. D., de Ridder, D. T., Hox, J. J., & de Wit, J. B. (2011, February). Do implementation intentions help to eat a healthy diet? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the empirical evidence. Appetite, 56(1), 183-193.

Ajzen, I., Czasch, C., & Flood, M. G. (2009). From Intentions to Behaviour: Implementation Intention, Commitment and Conscientiousness. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 39(6), 1356-1372.

Bagozzi, R. P., & Edwards, E. A. (2000). Goal setting and the implementation of goal intentions in the regulation of body weight. Psychology and Health, 15(2), 255-270.

Belanger-Gravel, A., Godin, G., & Amireault, S. (2013). A meta-analytic review of the effect of implementation intentions on physical activity. Health Psychology Review, 7(1), 23-54.

Brandstatter, V., Lengfelder, A., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2001). Implementation Intentions and Efficient Action Initiation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(5), 946-960.

Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation Intentions: Strong Effects of Simple Plans. The American Psychologist, 54(7), 493-503.

Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta-analysis of effects and processes. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 69-119.

Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (1998). The Emergence and Implementation of Health Goals. Psychology and Health, 13(4), 687-715.

Oettingen, G., Hönig, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2000). Effective self-regulation of goal attainment. International Journal of Educational Research, 33(7-8), 705-732.

van Hooft, E. A., Born, M., Taris, T. W., & van der Flier, H. (2005). Bridging the gap between intentions and behavior: Implementation intentions, action control, and procrastination. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 66(2), 238-256.

External links[edit | edit source]