When you want to guide your behavior, you have to pay attention to two different things—the goal and the process. The goal is the outcome you want to have happen, while the process is the set of steps that will allow you to achieve that goal. If you want to speak to a friend, you might adopt the goal to make a phone call. As a part of the plan to do that, you need to engage in the process of dialing your friend’s number.
In the United States, people tend to focus on the goal they want to accomplish when thinking about actions. Is that a universal human tendency?
This question was explored in a paper in the June, 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Yuri Miyamoto, Christopher Knoepfler, Keiko Ishii, and Li-Jun Ji. They suggested that there are differences across cultures in how consistent people perceive themselves to be across situations, and that consistency might affect how people think about the actions they perform.
Self-consistency reflects the similarity in your actions across situations. For example, you might feel that you are more outgoing when spending time with friends than when going to an event with family. If so, you are not being highly self-consistent. If you think you act similarly when spending time with different groups, then you are being highly self-consistent. These researchers point to work suggesting that Americans and Hong Kong Chinese see themselves as more self-consistent than Japanese do.
The key question was whether this difference in self-consistency would be related to the way people view their actions. People who are highly self-consistent may focus on the overall goal they want to achieve, because they want to maintain the same goals across situations. People who are lower in self-consistency may focus on the actions they take, because those actions may differ across situations.
To test this possibility, participants in the United States, Japan, and Hong Kong were given two different questionnaires. One measured people’s beliefs about the consistency of their behavior in different situations. The second gave people a set of situations and asked them whether they see that situation as involving a goal or an action. For example, if you are greeting someone, do you think it is better to identify that action as showing friendliness or saying hello? When you are taking a test are you showing your knowledge or answering questions?
The results were interesting. As expected based on the previous research, Americans and Hong Kong Chinese saw their actions as being more consistent across situations than the Japanese. Americans and Hong Kong Chinese also tended to identify their actions with the goal rather than the action, while the Japanese tended to identify their actions with the action rather than the goal. Statistical tests found that the degree to which people identified their actions with the goal was related to the degree to which they saw themselves as consistent across situations.
Why does this matter?
First, cross-cultural research gives us a view of the variation in human behavior. If we do a study in the United States that explores the way people think and act, we often conclude that the results of this study reflect the way people think and act in general. These cross-cultural studies are important for helping us to tease apart the aspects of behavior that are universal parts of human nature from those that are a result of years of cultural training.
Second, the focus on goals and actions may affect behavior. When trying to change behavior, for example, people (at least in the United States) focus on the goal they want to achieve. For example, when going on a diet, people set a goal to lose 25 pounds. The problem with this focus on the goal is that when you achieve the goal, it is not clear what you should do next. That is one reason why people who succeed at losing weight often regain it later. If you focus instead on the process (what you eat, how you prepare your food), then you may end up losing weight, but you have generated a set of behaviors that you can maintain even after you reach your desired weight. So, shifting your focus from goals to processes can be a benefit when trying to develop new habits.