General action and inaction goals: Definitions & effects

Individual Differences

There are several other resources and variables that may impact whether people adopt general action or inaction goals. One individual-level factor is a person’s baseline level of impulsivity. Approximately 40 to 60% of the variance in impulsive traits is inherited (Bouchard, 1994), suggesting that impulsivity is genetic. Highly impulsive individuals tend to exhibit greater activity across domains (e.g. movement, speech) and will frequently switch between tasks, even before the focal task is completed. Therefore, highly impulsive individuals are more prone to adopt activity goals, since they are naturally predisposed to being active all of the time. Affect or mood is also a crucial resource that impacts general goal pursuit. In one study, when subjects were primed with action and then given a decision-making task, their post-decision affect was most positive when they received complex information (Laran, 2009). Conversely, when primed with inaction, participants felt most positive when they received simple information. Most importantly, the participants’ levels of positive affect predicted future intentions to engage in the described behaviors. Basically, it seems that positive affect can motivate people to pursue certain goals (e.g., Aarts, Custers, & Holland, 2007) or be more generally active, which could impact adoption of general action or inaction goals. Another potential resource is a person’s level of power. Higher levels of power have been linked to general action tendencies (Anderson & Galinsky, 2006; Galinsky, Gruenfeld, & Magee, 2003), whereas powerlessness has been linked to inhibited speech, emotional inexpressiveness, and lowered expression of ideas (Keltner et al., 1998; Keltner, Gruenfeld, & Anderson, 2003). Capital resources (such as wealth or lack thereof) may also impact individual goal setting by allowing an individual to access certain restricted behavioral opportunities or preventing an individual from resting (if he/she must work long hours to maintain a given salary). Finally, physical space can impact activity levels in various ways. Living in a city where there are more behavioral opportunities than there are in the country may provide more options when it comes to setting active goals. However, cramped living quarters may also lead individuals to feel more restricted, which could alternatively constrain active physical or cognitive behavior.

Implications of General Action and Inaction Goals

Work v. Play

Having a general motivation for action or inaction can impact important and disparate types of behavior. One culturally salient example, as mentioned earlier, is political participation. In addition to the regional-level differences in political participation discussed above, participants who were experimentally primed with action reported stronger intentions to vote in an upcoming election and volunteer to lobby for a proposed university policy (Noguchi, Albarracin, & Handley, in press). Also, the effect of action priming via an exercise campaign had a shockingly undesirable effect on the amount of food that participants consumed after seeing the message (Albarracin et al., 2009). This effect could have dramatic and far-reaching consequences for everyday life. If policymakers wish to improve the health of their constituents, vaguely promoting “action” or “exercise” may not be the best tactic. Rather, they should suggest which particular exercise behaviors are desirable and ensure that ‘action’ is interpreted in the specific, desired way. Politicians who want to encourage certain constituencies to vote would also benefit from considering this research when brainstorming ways to increase voter turnout.

article author(s)