Thursday, April 19, 2012

The structure of our goals affects how we plan for the future

Lots of the things we hope to do in life—our goals—can be accomplished in many ways.  If you want to go into business for yourself, you might first train at a company that does similar work and then find a business partner, and then start your own firm.  Alternatively, you might go to school to get some additional skills.  While you are in school, you might also try to make contacts with potential business partners.  After completing school and finding a partner, you can then start your business.  The plans you create to achieve your goals are an important determinant in whether you succeed.

So, it is useful to know something about how you generate plans.

An interesting paper in the October, 2010 issue of Psychological Science by Kachina Allen, Steven Ibara, Amy Seymour, Natalia Cordova, and Matthew Botvinick looks at one influence on our plans.  They suggest that people may have very abstract plan structures that can be used to suggest how people may achieve many different kinds of goals.  Activating one of those abstract structures may make it easier to use that same structure again in the future.

One structure that people may use is a goal chain.  First you perform action A, then action B, and then action C, which allows you to achieve your goal.  The first plan I suggested above has this structure.  First you train, then you look for a business partner, finally you start your own business. 

Another structure involves carrying out independent actions at the same time in order to ultimately achieve your goal.  That is, you perform action A and action B at the same time, and then use those actions to do action C, which allows you to achieve your goal.  The example where you go to school and look for business partners at the same time and then start a company is an example of this structure.

The authors of this paper did two studies to demonstrate that people have these abstract structures for thinking about plans.  In the first, they had people read sentences that described sequences of actions.  The sequences of actions could have either of the two structures I just discussed.  For example, the sentence “John purchased a carousel ticket, gave it to the attendant, and went for a ride” has a goal chain structure.  The sentence “John sliced up some tomatoes, rinsed off some lettuce, and tossed together a salad” has the structure of doing two independent events and then putting those together to do a third.

Some people saw 40 sentences (half of each type) randomly intermixed.  A second group saw the sentences blocked, so that they saw 20 sentences of one type followed by 20 sentences of the other type.  The group that read the sentences in a blocked order read and comprehended the sentences faster than the group that read them intermixed.  This result suggests that people were able to reuse the same goal structure over and over when a whole batch of sentences all used the same abstract plan structure.

Another explanation for the results of this first study is that there is something about the way we structure and comprehend language that is affecting reading speed.  That is, the sentences used to describe plans may have a similar structure in a way that benefits reading about similar plans. 

To test this possibility, the authors did a clever study.  They had people read the same kinds of sentences randomly intermixed.  Before each sentence, people saw an arrangement of three blocks.  The blocks could be arranged in a tower or an arch.  The tower is similar to a goal chain, because creating a tower requires stacking one block on a second and then putting a third on top.  The arch is similar to the independent events, because two blocks are placed on the ground and a third is placed on top of it.

If people saw a tower first, they were faster to read sentences describing a goal chain than a plan with independent events.  If people saw an arch, the plan with independent events was read faster than the goal chain.  So, the results of the first experiment were not just a reflection of the way people understand language.

This set of findings suggests that we are able to represent our plans at an abstract level that focuses just on the structure of the events in the plan.  Activating the general structure of a plan makes it easier to think about other plans with the same structure in the future.  One factor that affects how we try to achieve our goals is the general structure of the plans we have used in the past.  When evaluating a new plan, then, it is worthwhile thinking about whether there are other ways to achieve the same goal to make sure that we have not missed another plan structure that might be better-suited to the goal we are trying to achieve.