Achieving Goals May Have Unintended Consequences

The Unintended Consequences of Goals

Your mind is a perplexing organ and can sometimes steer you in the wrong direction. If you acknowledge this weakness and take a step back before making decisions you could save yourself a lot of grief.

Once you activate a goal it runs and acts on things you encounter in your environment – without your awareness. A recent study provides an illustration of how goals can shape your impressions of other people without your awareness. In the study, participants were given the “goal” to evaluate a person’s suitability for a job – either a crime reporter or a restaurant waiter. The participants viewed a taped interview (for either the waiter or crime reporter position), during which, a person briefly interrupted the job interview at several points. This person interrupted the conversation in either a rude and impolite manner, or an apologetic and polite manner.

The researchers hypothesized that the study’s participants would unintentionally evaluate the interrupter based on the criteria they were intentionally applying to the job candidate. To be more specific, the researchers hypothesized that participants would show greater liking for the interrupter if his behavior corresponded to the position for which they were evaluating the job applicant, and less liking when the interrupter’s behavior was the opposite.

This is exactly what the researchers found. Participants that viewed the waiter interview showed greater liking for a polite interrupter versus a rude interrupter. The opposite held true for the participants that viewed the crime reporter interview; this group actually liked the rude interrupter more than the polite interrupter.

At the end of the experiment, participants attributed their subsequent liking or disliking of the interrupter to such factors as his physical appearance (which was the same in both of the study’s conditions) or his behavior (which was the same within each of the two tape versions). In other words, participants’ conscious explanations for their judgments were wrong! What’s more, if the researchers told the participants what was really influencing their judgments the participants would have likely strongly disagreed.

This study’s results are just one illustration of how your judgments about others are nonconsciously influenced by aspects of your environment. Being aware of such processes and how the environment influences them is important. Please be advised, your conscious explanations for your attitudes and behavior are likely wrong, or at least, slightly different from what your conscious mind is telling you.

This study has many practical implications ranging from whom you choose to date to how you spend your money. Given that this is a financial website I will choose to discuss the latter. Imagine a girl who does not usually spend a lot of money on frivolous things, however, one day she goes out to buy new spring clothes. The active “purchasing” goal may cause this normally shopping shy girl to buy many more things then she intended. This phenomenon is referred to as “shopping momentum” and will be discussed in my next post. -- J.B.


Bargh, J. A. (2005). Bypassing the will: Towards demystifying behavioral priming effects. In R. Hassin, J. Uleman, & J. Bargh (Eds.), The New Unconscious (pp. 37-58). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press:

Bargh, J. A., Green, M., & Fitzsimons, G. (2008). The selfish goal: unintended consequences of intended goal pursuits. Social Cognition, 26, 534-554.




Eddie Patel