General action and inaction goals: Definitions & effects

It is also interesting to consider our research in light of the recent In-Mind article “Successful dieting in tempting environments: Mission impossible?” (van Koningsbruggen, Stroebe, & Aarts, 2010). This article suggests that successful and unsuccessful dieters differ in the goals that are activated in response to tempting environments; for unsuccessful dieters, temptation activates an enjoyment goal, whereas for successful ones, temptation is strongly linked to activation of the diet goal. The authors go on to suggest that dieters can be more successful if they work to increase diet goal accessibility, positing that the key to success is the formation of implementation intentions and frequent reminders of the diet goal in tempting situations. This work has some clear parallels with our concept of general action/inaction goals. As previously discussed, Albarracin and colleagues (2009) found that immediately after exposure to either exercise messages or subliminal “action” words, participants consume a greater amount of calories, which suggests that priming an “action goal” leads to more activity even when that activity counteracts the more specific goal of weight loss. Although purely conjectural, it is possible that an alternative explanation for van Koningsbruggen and colleagues’ findings lies in the action/inaction domain; while the enjoyment of eating is an action, dieting is behavioral inaction. Therefore, it is possible that the difference between successful and unsuccessful dieters lies not in the specific activation of “enjoyment” vs. “diet” goals, but rather the general activation of “activity” or “inactivity” goals in response to temptation. If this is the case, than activating “inactivity” may also help dieters be more successful in the quest to battle temptation and restrict calorie consumption. Further clarification of these issues will be an important future direction of research in this area.


In the past, most of the research dealing with goals and motivation has addressed specific ways in which certain attitudes, intentions, and goals impact directly relevant behaviors. However, recent research demonstrates that it is crucial to focus on how general goals to “be active” or “be inactive” may impact people’s behavior across domains. As previously mentioned, there is a strong possibility that many current exercise campaigns could subconsciously motivate people to overeat, engage in drug use, or participate in active, risky behavior. As this is still a burgeoning line of research, there are many more connections that still need to be examined, such as the relations between action/inaction goals and power, genetic/cultural precursors, specific goal pursuit, mindsets, and the influence of material resources on behavior. It is also interesting to consider the previously discussed religious, cultural, and regional-level differences, and how these are rich environmental goal sources. Future research should flesh out these connections to fully understand how broad, general- domain goals can influence specific human motivation and behavior.


Aarts, H., Custers, R., & Holland, R. W. (2007). The nonconscious cessation of goal pursuit: When goals and negative affect are coactivated. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 165-178.

Albarracin, D., Handley, I., Noguchi, K., McCulloch, K., Li, H., Leeper, J., Brown, R., Earl, A. & Hart, W. (2008). Increasing and decreasing motor and cognitive output: A model of general action and inaction goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 510-523.

Albarracin, D., Leeper, J., & Wang, W. (2009). Immediate increases in eating following exercise promotion messages. Obesity, 17, 1451-1452.

Anderson, C. A., & Galinsky, A. D. (2006). Power, optimism, and the proclivity for risk.
European Journal of Social Psychology, 36, 511-536.

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