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Spontaneous Use of Incidentally Presented Goal-Relevant Information

Given the importance of accessibility, one might wonder whether incidental knowledge that is offered in an external context is also used by individuals to support their pursuit of a goal. In other words, are individuals capable of grasping goal-relevant knowledge about suitable opportunities, potential obstacles, and instrumental action strategies without much conscious effort?

Studies by Marquardt et al. (2016) addressed this question. They tested whether incidentally furnished goal-relevant information favors subsequent goal attainment. Moreover, they investigated whether the spontaneous use of incidentally provided implementation intentions depends on the activation of the particular goal. The authors expected that individuals would make spontaneous use of incidentally provided implementation intentions—but only when the goal had been previously activated.

Marquardt et al. (2016) first examined whether incidentally communicated plans can promote high school students’ achievement in a school setting. Initially, the researchers implicitly activated the achievement goal of the participating students by having them work on a crossword puzzle containing either achievement-related words (achievement-goal condition) or neutral words (no achievement-goal-control condition). Priming the goal rather than asking individuals to set the goal themselves was intended to reduce the likelihood that they would try to plan consciously. To induce spontaneous implementation intention, all students in the study completed on paper a puzzle about sentence construction. It presented 34 sentence fragments in scrambled order. The task of the students was to (a) form six meaningful sentences by connecting the fragments and (b) write down these sentences. All six sentences had been composed as conditional phrases (if-then structure). The only difference between the intention conditions was that one of the six sentences in the implementation-intention condition was relevant to the subsequent creativity task (“If I have found a use, then I will instantly search for the next use.”), whereas none of the six sentences in the no-achievement-goal condition and the mere-achievement- goal condition were relevant to the subsequent creativity task.

Students then worked on an ostensibly unrelated alternative- uses task (Guilford, 1967), in which they had to write down as many different ways of using a matchbox as possible. The number of different ways that students came up with was used to measure the effects of the manipulations of the goal and the plan. The results showed that participants in the achievement-goal-plus-implementation-intention condition found more uses for a matchbox than did the participants in the mere-achievement- goal and no-achievement-goal-control conditions. Thus, giving goal-relevant information (i.e., the implementation intention) improved goal attainment even when the information was delivered incidentally (i.e., before participants knew that it constituted an effective planning strategy for performing well on a later task). These findings tentatively bear out our argument that people can spontaneously use goal-related knowledge to bolster their goal attainment.

To corroborate these findings, Marquardt et al. (2016) ran a second study on the spontaneous use of goal-relevant knowledge. This time, the degree to which the individuals’ healthy-diet goal benefited from incidentally shared plans to eat healthily was tested in a university cafeteria. The study was divided into two parts. The first part took place in the morning and served to manipulate participants’ goal to eat healthily. Participants either read a short text of evidence-based arguments for a balanced diet with five portions of fruits and vegetables a day (healthy-diet goal condition) or a neutral text on nutrition science in Germany (no-goal-control condition), which was approximately the same length and had no words related to the healthy- diet goal.

Below the goal manipulation texts, a graphical display was positioned on the information sheet. This display was used to manipulate the incidentally offered plan. In all three conditions—no-healthy-diet-goal-control (A), mere-healthy-diet- goal (B), and mere-healthy-diet-goal-plus-implementation-intention (C)—participants received pictorial information on how to act on the healthy-diet goal. The graphical display consisted of three photographs showing the cafeteria’s salad bar, the vegetable bar, and the fruit shelf (each seen from the perspective of an individual standing directly in front it). All participants therefore had identical information on the how of eating healthily at the cafeteria. However, only participants in condition C received two additional pieces of information. First, to the left of the three photographs, the participants saw one photograph of the cafeteria entrance. This image thus depicted a suitable opportunity for them to act on their healthy-diet goal and can be thought of as specifying the if-component of an implementation intention. Second, they saw an arrow pointing from the picture of the cafeteria entrance to the three photographs of the suitable responses (i.e., selecting salad, fruit, and/or vegetables). The arrow thereby connected the different pictures and was an equivalent to the link between the if-component and the then-component in verbal implementation intentions. In summary, participants in condition C received information on the how of goal pursuit (photographs of the salad bar, the vegetable bar, and the fruit shelf), the when and where (picture of the cafeteria entrance), and a graphical link between the pictures that implied the characteristic structure of the if-then condition.

The second part of the experiment took place during lunch time. Participants completed a questionnaire after they had finished their meal at the cafeteria. They indicated how many portions of salad, vegetables, and fruit they had consumed there on which day. The total sum was used to measure the effects that the goal and plan manipulation had on the diet of the participants. Participants in condition C consumed a greater quantity and variety of healthy foods than did participants in either condition A or B. Thus, passing on if-then information that was relevant to planning improved goal attainment even when this information came incidentally (in this case, through a graphical display).

Together, these findings further underline the importance of knowledge accessibility for individuals’ goal pursuits. People readily used their newly acquired goal- related knowledge to conceive if-then plans for their goal attainment spontaneously. In our view, such spontaneous planning highlights the fact that automatic processes can be instrumental in the adaptive control of action. It is, however, important to note that the spontaneous planning occurred on the basis of an activated goal, further indicating that effects of implementation intention depend on the activation of a superordinate goal (Sheeran, Webb, & Gollwitzer, 2005).

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