Thursday, September 29, 2011

Your perception of your future self affects how you value future outcomes

Many choices in life reflect a tradeoff between the value of things in the present and in the future.  For example, if I buy a new computer today, I get to use that new computer now, but undoubtedly a better one will come out a year from now that will be nicer than the one I just bought.  Similarly, if I invest money in the stock market, I am trading the value of that money to me now for the hope that it will be worth a larger amount in the future. 

Clearly, some option in the future has to be more valuable than the option available in the present in order for us to wait for it.  But how much better does the future have to be in order for us to wait?

You can think of your willingness to wait until some time in the future to get something (an object or money) that is similar to what you could get now as your degree of patience.  An interesting paper in the February, 2010 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by Dan Bartels and Lance Rips suggests that the people are more patient when they view their future self as being similar to their current self.

Let me break this down.  Being patient means that you are willing to wait to get something that you could get more without requiring a huge increase in value to pay for the wait.  For example, imagine you had the chance to get $100 right now.  I might give you the chance to wait a year to get more money.  How much more would you need to get to wait the year?  If you said that you needed $110, that would be more patient than if you said $150. 

The authors looked at this question a few different ways.  First, they just used correlations.  They had people rate how similar the person they are right now would be to the person they think they will become at various points in the future.  Then, they had people do exercises in which they had to say how much money they would want to wait a particular amount of time predict the amount of money that would be required for them to wait to get some amount of money (as in the example in the previous paragraph).  They found that for each individual, time periods with large decreases in self-similarity people also became less patient.

In other studies, they had participants read about other people and their life changes.  Some of those life changes were fairly small (Jill discovered she likes rice dishes), while others were more significant (Bill had a health scare in which doctors thought he had a rare blood disease, but in the end he was found to be perfectly healthy).  The participants in the study rated the similarity of the people in the story before and after the events.  Later, they also did patience tasks like the one described earlier.  In some of these studies, the valuable things were things like vacation days from work rather than money. 

In these experimental studies, participants judged that the people would be more patient in periods in which they had undergone only small life changes than when they had undergone big life changes.  People also felt that the big life changes would make the person more different from their former self than the small life changes.

What does this all mean? 

When we plan for our own future, we are most focused on sharing the things we have with our future self.  The more similar we are to that future self, the more willing we are to share. 

 Often, though, we must make plans to put things off to the distant future when we feel that we will be quite different from what we are now.  For example, many people have difficulty saving enough money for their retirement.  You must begin saving for retirement when you are in your 20s or 30s, even though you may not  retire until you are in your 60s or 70s.  That means that you must agree to share your current money with someone who feels very little like you now.  Because this future self feels so different, people often put away too little money toward their retirement.  That is one reason why government pension funds like Social Security end up being so important to people.

In the end, when trying to plan for the future, it is probably best to use a little more math and a little less intuition.  For example, in the case of retirement savings, work with someone to make an assessment of how much money you will need when you retire.  Then, create a specific savings plan that will lead you to that amount of money in the future. Otherwise, you will be most likely to share that current money with a self that is more like who you are right now.

Monday, September 26, 2011

It is easier and more satisfying to buy experiences than to buy stuff

One of my kids has a tough time making choices.  If he has gift money to spend at the toy store, he’ll find three things he really likes and then agonize over the decision.  Just when we think he’s ready to pick one of the items, he starts to think about not having one of the others and he gets thrown back into the agony of the choice. 

I hadn’t noticed it before, but last year I gave him the choice between going to a local amusement park and a nearby water park.  That choice was free of the real pain that usually goes along with decisions.

Some new research gives some insight into what is going on.

A paper in the January, 2010 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Travis Carter and Tom Gilovich looks at differences in the way people treat choices involving material goods (that is, stuff like toys, electronics, or jewelry) and choices involving experiential goods (like trips or visits to an amusement park). 

Consistent with the story about my conflicted son, they find that people report that choices for material products are harder for them to make than choices for experiential products. 

There is another interesting finding as well.  When people were asked about choices they made for material products, they found themselves less satisfied with the choice they had made over time.  When people were asked about choices of experiences, though, they were more satisfied with their choice over time. 

Why is this?

Part of what is happening is that when we buy a material product, it is often easy for us to compare that product to other similar ones.  So, if you go out and buy a flat-screen TV, the store probably has a wall of TVs just like it.  They differ in lots of ways, and so you can always think about the ones you did not buy and how they may have been better than what you got.

Experiences are different.  It is hard to compare across them.  If you take a trip to the beaches of Florida in the winter, you might spend your time swimming, eating good food, and dancing at night.  You could have chosen a trip to ski in Colorado instead.  Your activities on that trip would have been much different, and so it isn’t so easy to compare the different options.

Consistent with this idea, Carter and Gilovich find that when people are making choices for material products, they spend more time comparing alternatives than when they are making choices for experiences.  People think about choices for experiences, but they aren’t really comparing the different options.

Another difference is that material products are just possessions.  Even really expensive and important purchases are just things that eventually get older or break or are replaced by newer and (usually) better things.  The stuff you have is not psychologically a part of you.

Experiences, though, are a part of you.  The trips you take, the movies you see, and the things you do create your memories which become a central part of who you are.  Even bad experiences can often become stories that you tell, and in that way, they gain value.  You do not shed your experiences as easily as you shed your stuff.

Finally, as Carter and Gilovich point out, it is important to remember that many things that you may buy have both a material and an experiential part.  For example, a new car can be thought of as a material product.  It has features like the styling, handling, and engine power that can be compared to other cars.  It may also be thought of as an experience.  You could choose to focus on the enjoyment of driving the car and the trips you take in it. 

In the end, you are much more likely to be satisfied with your choices if you treat the objects in your life as experiences rather than just as stuff that you have accumulated.  Stuff will come and go, but your experiences will make you who you are.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Patience may be a virtue, but it is also really hard.

My dog eats two meals a day, one in the morning and one in the evening.  She is trained to sit until the bowl is on the floor before she leaps to start eating.  She does it, but it is a real challenge.  She gets excited from the moment that she sees the food being put in the bowl, and it requires a tremendous act of will to keep from leaping to the bowl before it is set down.

This daily routine has an important lesson for behavior change.

Animals (like my dog) have a hard time waiting for a good thing.  Even if I set things up so that she would get more food in a few minutes if she could wait, she would have a lot of trouble waiting.  The idea that something now is more valuable than even more later is called delay discounting.  Animals of all types have a high discount rate.  That is, they have a hard time being patient.  They would rather have something now than more of it later.  This is true, even when the delay is just a few seconds or a minute. 

So, what does this have to do with you?

As humans, we pride ourselves on having some patience.  The dog can hardly wait to snap at her meal, but we can wait until the entire table is served before digging in. 

That pride may be misplaced.

A study by Koji Jimura, Joel Myerson, Joseph Hilgard, Todd Braver, and Leonard Green in the December, 2009 issue of Psychonomic Bulletin and Review makes the point that we’re a lot more like animals than we’d like to think.  In their study, they brought thirsty people to the lab and gave them choices between a small amount of a drink of their choice immediately (juice or water) or a larger amount some time in the near future.  The wait times ranged between 5 seconds and a minute.  The people in the study were told that a new choice would be given at a fixed interval, so they would not get more chances to make choices if they always chose the immediate option.

People who selected the immediate drink, were given a chance to drink right away.  Those who selected the larger drink had to sit through the delay period before getting the chance to drink. 

People in this study showed a very high rate of delay discounting, just as animals do.  That is, unless people were offered a lot more juice to wait, they tended to select the immediate drink.

What does this mean for you?

These results make clear that we are not that much different than other animals in our ability to delay our rewards.  If there is a small reward in front of us now, it is hard to give it up for the promise of a bigger reward in the future.  Short-term temptations put a strong pull on us.

So, how do you succeed in changing your behavior? 

If you are trying to lose weight and you have the choice between a slice of pie now or being thin in the future, you are almost always going to take the piece of pie now.  If you are trying to stop smoking, the cigarette being offered to you is going to be much more attractive to you than your future good health. 

You have to remove the immediate option from your environment.  If you want to lose weight, don’t look at the dessert menu, and don’t keep sweets at home.  If you want to stop smoking, don’t stand outside with your friends while they have a cigarette. 

Don’t put yourself in the position of having to protect big rewards in the future from the small ones in your path right now.

Monday, September 19, 2011

More information makes you more confident, if not more accurate.

Confidence matters.  We are much more likely to act in situations when we are confident.  We make purchases based on confidence.  We are also persuaded by others based on their confidence.  A statement made confidently and forcefully is much more likely to sway our opinion than a statement that is hedged. 

Presumably, the power of confidence lies in the belief that when people are more confident in an outcome they are more likely to be correct in their predictions.

There have been many studies over the years that demonstrate that people tend to be overconfident in their judgments about how likely they are to be correct about a prediction or an answer to a question.  But what causes this overconfidence?

A 2008 paper by Claire Tsai, Joshua Klayman, and Reid Hastie in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes suggests one factor that makes people overconfident.  They find that as people get more information about a judgment they are making, it increases their confidence, even if it does not increase the accuracy of their judgment.

In one study in this paper, they found experts in college football and asked them to predict the outcomes of a number of games.  The names of the schools playing the games were not given.  Instead, people were given information about how the teams had performed to that point in the season on a variety of aspects of performance that are useful for predicting the outcome of a game (like the average number of yards that the teams had gained in their games so far that season). 

For each game, the participants were initially given six measures of performance for each team and were asked to predict which team would win the game and the point spread between the teams.  They were also asked to rate their confidence in their judgment.  Based on this initial information, people predicted the outcome of the game correctly about 63% of the time, and their average confidence was about 68%.  That is, they were overconfident, but not very overconfident.

Then, people were given 6 more measures of performance and they repeated the judgment, again predicting the outcome of the game and the point spread, and giving their confidence.  This was repeated 3 more times, so that people ultimately made 5 judgments and saw 30 measures of performance for each game. 

As people got more information, their overall accuracy did not change much.  After seeing all 30 cues, people were only correct in predicting the winners of the game 67% of the time.  However, by the end of the study, they were not 79% confident in their responses.  That is, their confidence went way up as they got more information, even though their accuracy stayed the same.

One thing that seems to happen as people get more information is that they start to go from specific information to more general evaluations of aspects of team performance.  So, based on a few different measures of performance, a judge might now make an evaluation of the effectiveness of a team’s run defense or passing attack. 

Of course, all information is ambiguous.  Not every measure of performance tells the same story about teams.  As you get more information, though, you become more free to pick and choose the information that is consistent with the story you are trying to tell.  In this way, you find information that helps you to confirm what you already believe to be true.  This tendency to seek information that supports a conclusion you have already drawn is called confirmation bias.  This confirmation bias will increase confidence in the judgment you have made.

It is important to realize that confidence and accuracy are not that highly related.  We are often asked to make decisions on the basis of expert opinion.  There is a temptation to rely on the confidence of the expert to decide how much of that expert’s opinion we should trust.  Perhaps we are better off looking at that expert’s past performance to make up our own mind about how confident we should be in the accuracy of their judgments.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The paradoxical effects of doing good

As a kid, I can remember fighting with my brother over who got the larger piece of cake.  “Relax,” my dad would say, “it will even out in the long run.”  Of course, as a kid, I wanted it to even out in the short run too.  If my brother got the larger piece of cake, then it would only be fair if I got to ride in the front seat of the car.
It is not so clear that things are different for adults either.
As adults, we may not even need to make things even out across people.  For example, if you go to the gym in the afternoon, then you feel as though you can eat a little extra for dinner.  The virtue of exercise can immediately support the vice of an extra helping.
This issue was examined in experiments reported in a paper by Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong in a paper in the April, 2010 issue of Psychological Science.  They looked at the effects of buying environmentally-friendly “green” products on behavior. 
In these studies, participants saw a website that described 12 products that were for sale.  For one group, most of the products were environmentally friendly (such as rechargeable batteries and organic yogurt).  For the other group, most of the products were not environmentally friendly (such as regular light bulbs, or Kraft macaroni and cheese).   Some of the people in these studies just looked at the websites.  Others were asked to select a basket of products they wanted to purchase.  
The authors reasoned that people who just looked at products would be more likely to feel virtuous after seeing a store filled with “green” products than after seeing a store filled with conventional products.  However, if people were asked to select a group of products to purchase, then they expected a different pattern of results.  Buying “green” products should make people feel like they had done their good deed for the day, and so they could balance out that good deed with a less good deed.
The authors addressed this question in two ways.
In one study, after either seeing the stores or picking a basket of products for purchase, participants played a dictator game.  In the dictator game, participants got $6 and were told to split it with a partner.    They could keep whatever they chose not to give to the partner.  In this game, participants who saw a store with many green products gave more to their partner than those who saw a store with conventional products.  However, those who picked a basket from the store with green products actually gave their partner less money than those who picked a basket from the store with conventional products. 
A second study made a similar observation using an experiment in which people had the opportunity to cheat.  In this study, participants had the chance to play a game in which they could cheat to get more points.  In addition, at the end of the game, participants were asked to pay themselves in accordance with the number of correct answers they got in the game.  Participants who saw green products cheated less than those who saw conventional products.  In contrast, participants who bought green products actually cheated more than those who saw conventional products.
Taking these results together, it seems that when you just see virtuous products, it activates the concept of being virtuous.  This active concept makes you act more virtuously in the future..  Actually performing a virtuous act, though, makes you feel as though your mental account of virtue is turning a profit.   This surplus of virtue can be spent immediately on a vice.
What we all need to remember, though, is that things do not need to even out in the short run.  Every virtuous act does not need to be followed by a vice just to keep your mental account of virtue in balance.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Democrats and Republicans really are polar opposites

Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC.  For one day, Democrats and Republicans stood side-by-side and remembered the tragedy of the attacks.  This was a brief break from the usual tension between Democrats and Republicans in the United States.  These days, it seems like if a Democrat takes a position, you can be guaranteed that a Republican will immediately argue why that position is wrong and dangerous.  And each statement by a Republican is immediately refuted by the Democrats.

It is as if Democrats and Republicans are perfect opposites.  Is that something special about politics, or is it true of the way people think about opposing categories in general?

This question was addressed in a November 2010 paper in Cognitive Science by Evan Heit and Stephen Nicholson.  They did a clever set of experiments.  They started by generating a list of 15 public figures (like David Letterman, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Oprah Winfrey).  People rated the people on this list for how typical they were of Democrats in general or how typical they were of Republicans in general.  Psychologists often use these judgments of typicality to determine whether people think a particular item is a good member of a category.

Heit and Nicholson found that people’s ratings were almost mirror images.  That is when someone was rated as Typical of Democrats, the other group rated that same person as not at all typical of Republicans.  

What was really surprising about this finding was the strength of this opposite relationship.  When you characterize the relationship between two measures, you can use a statistic called a correlation coefficient.  When two variables are not at all related, the correlation coefficient has a value of 0.  When the variables are perfectly oppositely related, the coefficient has a value of -1, and when they are perfectly positively related, the coefficient has a value of 1.  Psychologists are often excited about correlation coefficients that are larger than 0.5 or smaller than -0.5.  The relationship in the typicality ratings for Democrats and Republicans was a whopping -0.996.  That is, the ratings from different groups of people were nearly perfect opposites.

Perhaps this result is just a reflection of the way people treat categories in general.  To check this out, the authors tried this study with other categories that were opposites.  They had people rate the typicality of a number of foods as healthy foods or junk foods.  Another group rated particular jobs as jobs for men or jobs for women.

The results for these other categories are both similar and dissimilar to the results for the political categories. The correlation coefficients for foods and jobs were still large and negative (-0.966 for foods, and -0.873 for jobs).  So, people do tend to think of categories as opposites.  However, in each of these sets, there were some items that were not at all opposites.  For example, people thought that Teachers were a reasonably good job for both men and women.  Similarly, Cheese was rated as a poor example of both a healthy food and a junk food. 

Overall, then, when we have opposing categories, there is a general tendency to think that items are a good example of one or the other category, but not both.  However, the modern political world has enhanced that tendency for political categories.  That is, we not only categorize Democrats and Republicans as opposites we think of them as complete opposites. 

This polarization is a real problem, because Democrats and Republicans are not really so different in many ways.  Politicians generally want to make their country a better place.  They want to see children get a good education.  They want people to be protected and to be treated when they are sick.  In the US, Democrats and Republicans differ in how they want to accomplish these goals.  To the extent that we treated them psychologically as polar opposites, though, it will be harder for those politicians (and the people who support them) to see how they can have common ground to work on the difficult problems of governing a country.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Unrealistic optimism about problem drinking is dangerous.

An important part of everyone’s self-concept is a sense of how we compare to others in our behaviors.  A common observation is that many people are overly optimistic in their judgments about themselves relative to others.  For example, on average, people think they are more likely to be successful in business than others, or to be less likely to suffer from serious illnesses than others.  Not everyone can be more successful in business than others, of course, so somebody in that sample must be being too optimistic.

What is the effect of this optimism on behavior?

It is likely that being overly optimistic can have many different effects on behavior depending on the kind of behavior.  In this post, I want to focus on the influence of optimism on drinking.  Amanda Dillard, Amanda Midboe, and William Klein reported an interesting study in the November, 2009 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in which they followed a group of college students for one and a half years.

Students were asked about whether they thought they were more or less likely to be at risk for drinking problems than their peers.  They were also asked about a number of problem drinking behaviors they might have experienced during that semester (including getting sick, blacking out, and missing class.  They were also asked about the amount they typically drank.  In three follow-up questionnaires given every six months, they were asked additional questions about their drinking behavior.

The first question is whether there were people who were unrealistically optimistic?  The answer to that question was clearly yes.  There was a group of people who felt that they were at low risk for drinking problems, yet those people did drink more than their peers.  These people were unrealistically optimistic.  Not everyone was unrealistically optimistic.  There was another group of realists who either did not drink much and correctly felt that they were at low risk for drinking problems or drank substantially but believed they were at risk for drinking problems.

The study then compared the realists to the unrealistic optimists.  The unrealistic optimists were more likely to experience negative events as a result of drinking than the realists in all of the followup periods. Six months after their initial assessment, the unrealistic optimists experienced 20% more negative episodes than the realists, and by the following year, they were experiencing 54% more negative episodes.

There are many reasons why the unrealistic optimists experience so many more alcohol problems than their peers who are realistic about their drinking.  For example, the unrealistic optimists may pay less attention to the consequences of their drinking than the realists in order to maintain their self-concept that they are not problem drinkers.  In addition, the unrealistic optimists may not be as good as the realists at recognizing the potential dangers of drinking.

So, if unrealistic optimism can lead to bad behaviors and bad consequences, why are some people unrealistically optimistic?  One reason is that this optimism may make people feel better in the short-run.  Those people who are unrealistically optimistic are not likely to be worried that their drinking behavior poses a long-term problem, and so they will experience little anxiety about their drinking.  People who are realistic about drinking may have more anxiety about drinking.

In the end, though, at least for behaviors that can have negative consequences like smoking, risky sex, or excessive drinking, it is probably best to be realistic about the dangers of these behaviors.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

You never forget your first...

Firsts matter. 

There are at least three reasons why firsts play such an important role for us both emotionally and behaviorally. 

1)  The first encounter with something sets our expectations for the future in ways that come to define the category for us in the future.

2)  Firsts define what feels familiar to us, and what feels familiar is an important influence on what we like.

3)  Many important “firsts” happen to us while we are in adolescence, which is a time of important emotional development.  These firsts have a lot of emotional resonance with us throughout our lives.

Let me elaborate on each of these. 

i)  The first object, event, or person of a particular type that we have a real relationship with often has a huge impact on the way we think about (or represent) that thing in the future.  One place to see this is actually on research in consumer behavior.

A key observation in consumer behavior is that the products that first become leaders in a market often remain the market leader for years to come.  For example, Gillette razors and Gold Medal flour are examples of brands that dominated a market early and remain the market leader.  Obviously, there are many business and economic factors that might help a brand that is successful early to remain a leader, but there are psychological factors as well.

Quite a bit of research (including work that I did with Shi Zhang) suggests that these early successful brands become the first brand that people experience of a particular type.  These brands serve as the basis of what people believe to be true for that product.  For a new brand to gain prominence, it has to contrast itself successfully from the leading brand, and that turns out to be difficult to do, because people’s concept of the product type is defined by that brand.  So, whenever people think about that type of product, they also think about that leading brand.

The same thing can come to be true of other more personal firsts.  Your first love may come to define what it means for you to be in love, and any subsequent relationships you have will be influenced by this first love, whether you realize it or not. 

Research by Susan Andersen and her colleagues suggests how this might happen.  She finds that significant people in your life influence how you think about and react to other significant people in your life.  For example, if you meet someone who reminds you of your mother in some ways, you will assume that person has other important characteristics that your mother has.  You may even start to treat that person and react to that person the way that you treat and react to your mother.

ii)  We are wired to like familiar things more than unfamiliar things.  This bias makes a lot of sense, because things that are familiar are probably safe.  If they are familiar, it means that we encountered them in the past and survived.  Things that are unfamiliar may have noxious qualities that we don’t know about. 

Research by Bob Zajonc in the 1960s observed that people (and animals) show a marked preference for things they have encountered before over things they have never seen, even if they experienced them only once.  That is why people like songs they have heard before better than those they have not heard before.  He called this phenomenon the mere exposure effect.

Of course, if you have an experience with something and it is a bad experience, you will remember that you did not like that thing.  So, you do not get mere exposure effects for familiar bad things. 

By definition, your “first” is the only thing of a particular type that you have had, and so initially it will be preferred to anything else of that type.  This “first” will always be something familiar, and so you will always have warm feelings toward it. 

Mere exposure may also help to explain why people persist in some bad behaviors.  The phrase “the devil known is better than the devil unknown” reflects that people may still elect to do things or spend time with people that have been associated with negative outcomes in the past.  This preference may reflect that mere exposure can be powerful enough to overcome some negative memories.

iii)  The last point to make about firsts is that many of them occur during adolescence, which is a key developmental period.  In our teen years, our bodies and minds change substantially.  Puberty comes along with high doses of sex hormones.  These hormones have a big influence on emotions.  That is why adolescents ride an emotional roller-coaster.  At the same time, the frontal lobes of the brain have a lot of maturing to do.  A significant influence of the frontal lobes is to inhibit behaviors and reactions to information in the environment.  Teens and young adults do not have the same capacity to inhibit emotional reactions that adults have, and so they will have strong emotional memories associated with experiences from adolescence. 

First loves, first musical tastes, first kisses (and other sexual experiences), first favorite bands, first athletic or artistic successes often occur in someone’s teen years.  These firsts have powerful emotional memories attached to them, and those emotional memories can affect behavior even years later. 

One way to see this influence is to look at the proliferation of radio stations that cater to demographic groups that want to listen to the music that was popular when that group was in its teens.  Classic rock stations have listeners who were in junior high school and high school in the 1970s and ‘80s.  A new generation of stations playing music from the 90s now aims at listeners in their 20s and 30s.  The music has its resonance with people who experienced their formative emotional memories with that music as a soundtrack.

A couple of papers to look at for further reading.

Andersen, S. M., & Chen, S. (2002). The relational self:  An interpersonal social-cognitive theory. Psychological Review, 109(4), 619-645.
Andersen, S. M., & Cole, S. W. (1990). "Do I know you?":  The role of significant others in general social perception. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59(3), 384-399.
Kardes, F. R., & Kalyanaram, G. (1992). Order-of-entry effects on consumer memory and judgment:  An information integration perspective. Journal of Marketing Research, 29, 343-357.
Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 1-27.
Zhang, S., & Markman, A. B. (1998). Overcoming the early entrant advantage:  The role of alignable and nonalignable differences. Journal of Marketing Research, 35, 413-426.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Get energized about your future…just compare it to your life now

It is easier to set goals than to achieve them.  Setting goals requires only thinking about the future, and envisioning what you would like that future to be.  If you want to learn to sing, you can imagine yourself as a successful singer and how rewarding it would be to sing for a group of people who are enjoying your music.  If you want to become a better student, you can think about studying or passing tests or getting a good report card.  Actually satisfying your goals, though, requires effort.  It requires the energy to move forward and actually carry out a plan to achieve the goal.

Where can that energy come from? 

Research by Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues suggests that there are two key factors that help you get the energy you need to satisfy your goals.  First, your goals need to be realistic, and second, you need to compare the future you desire to your situation right now.  Let me discuss each of these in turn.

The first point seems obvious at some level, but it is really important.  You need to set goals that are realistic.  Your motivational system is actually pretty smart.  If you set a goal that you really cannot achieve, then no matter what you do, you will have difficulty getting the energy to work on it.  Instead, you will have feelings of low energy and frustration.  So, if you are having difficulty getting energized to satisfy a goal, you should spend some time thinking about whether your goal is realistic.

The second important thing to do is to compare your desired future to your present world.  This process has been an important thrust of Oettingen’s research.  The key is to find the differences between what you hope for your future and what is true now, and to assess the obstacles that stand in your way of turning the present into the future.  Thinking carefully about these obstacles allows you to find ways to overcome them. 

Just thinking about the future does not work the same way.  In Oettingen’s experiments, people who contrast the future with the present are much more likely to achieve their goals later than those people who just indulge themselves in thoughts about how nice the future would be if the goal were satisfied.

New research suggests that an important reason why people satisfy their goals successfully when they contrast the future to the present is that this process gives them motivational energy to pursue their goals.  For example, in a paper by Oettingen with Doris Mayer, Timur Sevincer, Elizabeth Stephens, Hyeon-ju Pak, and Meike Hagenah in the May, 2009 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, people were asked to either compare their future to the present when thinking about making a change in a friendship or to just think about a positive future outcome.  Consistent with past research, people who were contrasting the future to the present were more likely to commit to this change in a personal relationship than people who just thought about the future.

At the same time, people’s blood pressure was being examined.  Systolic blood pressure is a reasonable measure of how energized or aroused someone has become.  People showed a bigger change in blood pressure when they were contrasting the desired future to the present than when they were just thinking about the desired future.  This change in blood pressure was highly correlated with people’s statements about how committed they were to actually satisfy this goal.

In later studies, they found that people got energized when they were thinking about goals that were realistic to achieve, but not when they were thinking about goals that are unrealistic to achieve.

So, if you want to achieve your goals, you need motivational energy.  Happily, this motivational energy is easy to come by.  All you need to do is to keep your goals realistic, and then think carefully about the difference between your present reality and your desired future.  When you think about the obstacles that prevent you from satisfying your goals, your motivational system will naturally give you the energy to get started on the road to overcoming the things that stand in the way of what you want.