Do you have a plan to save money, exercise more or call your mother? Making those plans concrete might help you achieve those goals but at the cost of some flexibility, according to a study published in the February issue of Social Cognition.
E. J. Masicampo, a psychologist at Wake Forest University, studies implementation intentions. These plans take a specific “if-then” form, such as “if I am near a phone, then I will call my mother.” In the experiment, he gave volunteers a number of tasks to complete online and asked them to remember to look up actor Bill Murray’s birth date when they were done. He instructed some subjects to make an implementation intention to look up the date at a movie-themed Web site, IMDb.com. These individuals were much more likely to remember to do it, underscoring the power of implementation intentions. But if the test ended artificially early, with their computer screens pointing at Wikipedia.org, about two thirds of the subjects who had planned to use IMDb overlooked the alternative right in front of them. Those who had not made such a specific plan were able to adapt and find Murray’s birth date on Wikipedia.
Masicampo explains that although having a narrow focus probably will not lead to so obvious a failure in the real world as it did in the laboratory, he thinks being blind to alternative solutions “frequently results in people expending more time, energy and resources on tasks than is necessary.” But that should not stop people from making plans, he says. That may be the only way to juggle multiple goals—as long as one remembers to keep an open mind.
This article was published in print as "Focused to a Fault."