Social Psychology Eye
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Tag Archives: Intentions
By Erica Zaiser
You know those moments when you are walking and someone else seems to be coming straight towards you. Don’t you hate when you both move to the same side to pass each other and then have an awkward moment where you almost collide? It usually ends with both parties engaged in that terribly uncoordinated dance, trying to figure out which way the other person is going to go. Or is that just me? But really, if you think about it, its pretty amazing how often we don’t actually run into each other. Most of the time when we walk down the street we coordinate our use of physical space with a total stranger pretty well, without saying a word, and we tend to do it very quickly. It makes you wonder, what are we doing to effectively communicate our intention to move left or right?
Research from the December issue of Psychological Science helps unravel this phenomenon a bit. In an experiment using eye-tracking, Nummenmaa and colleagues found that people use their gaze to indicate which direction they will travel. Conversely, you receive information from the gaze of an oncoming pedestrian and react by purposefully moving in the opposite direction. This might seem obvious but its actually an interesting finding because most past studies on gaze-following have shown it to be a reflexive social habit. In other words, when people look somewhere, we tend to automatically follow their gaze and look in the same direction. This research suggests that we might have two systems guiding our gaze -following: the first being an automatic response to follow the direction of a gaze and the second system based on intentions and goals, which allows us to interpret a gaze within a specific context. Thus, in the context of pedestrian navigation, gaze-following does not occur in its ordinary passive, automatic way… if it did, we might run into each other a lot more often.
It is generally assumed that telling friends and family about your current goals is beneficial. A great deal of research has shown that when people explicitly state their intentions, they are more likely to follow through. This might be for a number of reasons including the need for self-consistency and the benefits of social support.
However, a recent investigation showed that publicizing your goals may actually lead to a lower likelihood of working toward them. In 4 studies, Peter Gollwitzer and colleagues (2009) asked people to report how important certain goals were to them. These responses were then turned into the experimenter who read them over (making them socially known) or set it aside without looking at them (making them private). Following this, the students completed tasks that were related to their goals. In all studies, they found that while both groups were made up of people strongly committed to their goals, it was people who kept their goals private that were more likely to actually engage in behaviors that were consistent with their intentions.
This finding, while somewhat surprising, is actually consistent with work done by classic theorists such as Kurt Lewin. Namely, the act of stating one’s intentions publicly is symbolic and creates a premature feeling of success, leading people to feel as if they’re already on their way to achieving their goals. In turn, this false sense of accomplishment makes people less likely to engage in the necessary behaviors for achieving those goals. And with this, I’m off to work on some of my own goals, none of which I can or should tell you about.