There are many activities in your life where you might choose between doing an action and not doing that action. Many years ago, I became a vegetarian. I had a number of reasons for doing that. I wanted to eat a healthier diet. I also felt that raising animals for food was a poor use of land and water resources. In the years before that, I chose to eat meat. Even though these two actions are opposites, my reasons weren’t opposites. I was not hoping to eat an unhealthy diet and uncaring about water and land resources before that. Instead, I ate food that the people around me ate, and I ate foods that I enjoyed.
A paper by Juliette Richetin, Mark Conner, and Marco Perugini in the January, 2011 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explored the contribution of these kinds of goals for people’s choices of what seem to be contradictory actions.
First, they documented the point described in the first paragraph in three studies. The first experiment actually focused on people’s goals related to eating meat. The other studies explored the decision to exercise and the choice of mothers to breastfeed or formula feed their babies.
In that first experiment, they had people rate their attitude toward eating meat as well as their attitude toward not eating meat. They also had people rate whether the people around them did or did not eat meat and whether they felt that the decision to eat meat or not was under their control. They asked people for their intentions to eat meat, and then tracked whether people actually did eat meat over the next two weeks.
If the goals relating to eating meat and not eating meat were opposites, then you would expect people’s attitudes toward eating meat and toward not eating meat to be completely opposite. They are not complete opposites. Unsurprisingly, the strength of people’s attitudes is negatively correlated. That is, the more you want to eat meat, in general the less that you want to avoid meat. But, the correlation in the strength of these attitudes is moderate.
Interestingly, both the attitude toward eating meat and the attitude toward avoiding meat both influence people’s later behavior. That means that people who had only a strong attitude to avoid meat tended to eat very little meat (if any). That is, the stronger people’s attitude to eat meat, the more likely they were to eat it. The stronger people’s attitude to avoid meat, the more likely they were to avoid it. People who had strong attitudes both to eat and to avoid meat experienced a conflict between these attitudes and they ate moderate amounts of meat. A similar pattern was observed in the other studies exploring other pairs of goals.
What does this mean for you?
In many situations, when you want to change a behavior, you aim to switch from something you are doing to something you no longer want to do. There is a tendency in this case, to focus on negating the reasons for your previous behavior. If you want to quit smoking, you might focus on the reasons you used to smoke.
This work suggests that an effective strategy for changing behavior is to change the kinds of goals you have to support the behavior your desire. If you don’t want to smoke any more, then don’t focus on the goals that you used to have surrounding smoking. Instead, create new goals around health and exercise. Those new goals will influence your smoking by pushing you toward other behaviors rather than just pushing your away from smoking.