General action and inaction goals: Definitions & effects

What Are General Action and Inaction Goals?

Before addressing some of the origins and consequences of general action and inaction goals, it is important to clarify what exactly they are and are not. General goals for action and inaction regulate how people pursue overall levels of active or inactive behavior, and they are not specific to any particular behavioral domain (Albarracin et al., 2008; Albarracin, Leeper, & Wang, 2009; Gendolla & Silvestrini, in press; Laran, 2009). General action/inaction goals can be triggered and studied within the lab through  priming. Priming involves using pictures, words, or behaviors to ‘activate’ certain concepts in people’s minds. For example, people can be primed with concepts linked to general action or inaction by subliminally being exposed to words like ‘active’ or ‘rest.’ When people are primed with concepts that are linked to general action or general inaction with no reference to any specific behavioral target, they still demonstrate significant differences on subsequent tasks that assess relative levels of activity. For example, after participants in one study were primed with action or inaction using a word completion task (e.g. ‘Fill in the missing letter(s): ac_ive’) and then given the option to be active (drawing on a piece of paper) or inactive (resting with eyes closed), 62% of the action-primed participants chose to draw (compared with 36% of inaction-primed participants) (Albarracin et al., 2008). This effect is not only limited to this one particular behavior. General action/inaction goals have also been shown to impact eating; when subjects were exposed to exercise messages or subliminally primed with words related to action, they ate more kilocalories than control participants (Albarracin et al., 2008; Albarracin, Leeper, & Wang, 2009). General action/inaction goals also impact overall cognitive abilities – when participants in a study were primed with action or inaction and then asked to perform a variety of cognitive tasks, those who were primed with action answered significantly more questions about a reading comprehension passage correctly than the inaction-primed participants (58% vs. 45%). In another study, action-primed participants solved significantly more SAT-style verbal and math problems (Albarracin et al., 2008). All of these priming studies demonstrate that even when these general goals are temporarily manipulated, they can still have profound impact on behavior across different domains.

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