General action and inaction goals: Definitions & effects

Energization is a term that is used to describe how the body responds when faced with the difficulties of goal pursuit. Research in this area is generally concerned with how activity in the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), such as heart rate, responds to task-related requirements to produce behavioral effort (Brehm & Self, 1989). Recent work has demonstrated that energization can be the direct result of processing environmental cues that promote goals (Gendolla & Silvestrini, in press). Specifically, participants subliminally primed with general action words showed increased energization, whereas participants primed with general inaction words showed decreased energization. This suggests that general action goals may promote behavior by increasing physiological resources that promote effortful behavior.

However, action and effort are not equivalent. This point is clearest when considering behavioral inhibition, a concept that is typically conceptualized as behavioral inaction yet requires a great deal of energy, effort, and resources for successful execution (Gailliot et al., 2007). Although people naturally vary in the degree to which they consider specific behaviors to be active (McCulloch, Hong, Li, & Albarracin, 2010), they typically view ‘inhibition’ words (e.g. abstain, restrain) as inherently more active than pure ‘inaction’ words (e.g. lazy, idle). Therefore, future work should explore how action and inaction goals interact with effort to ultimately produce active behavior, inactive behavior, or behavioral inhibition.

The Origins and Resources of General Action and Inaction Goals

Regional/Cultural Differences

There are several factors that can influence the formation of a general goal for action or inaction. Although these goals can be activated and studied within the lab, people can also be chronically predisposed to adopt action or inaction goals in their everyday lives. As an example, there are overall regional- and individual-level variations in general activity levels. Whereas Latin American and Mediterranean geographical regions endorse afternoon naps as a cultural norm (Masa et al., 2006), the United States has experienced a decrease in average sleep hours and a possible increase in clinical levels of hyperactivity (for a review, see Albarracin et al., 2008). Religious affiliation is one cultural factor that may influence the origins of action/inaction goals. A number of religious doctrines (such as Protestantism) moralize action and socialize their members to prefer active, productive behaviors (Sanchez-Burks, 2002; Weber, 1904/1992). Conversely, many Eastern religions (such as Buddhism or Taoism) strongly value meditation and other behaviorally inactive practices. This suggests that people’s general levels of action and inaction may be, in some part, a byproduct of where they were raised, where they currently live, and the value system under which they grew up.

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