Why do people often fail to translate goal intentions into goal attainment? According to the model of action phases (Heckhausen & Gollwitzer, 1987), forming an intention to pursue a particular goal is only the first step on the path to goal attainment; to attain the goal the person must also effectively regulate actual striving for the goal (i.e., implement their goal intention successfully). Realizing one’s goal intentions can be difficult because people often confront problems en route to goal attainment (Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006). In the context of health goals, two self-regulatory problems appear to offer the greatest challenges to effective goal striving—failing to get started, and getting derailed along the way.
Failing to Get Started with Goal Striving
Remembering to act. Three factors seem to be involved in failures to get started with goal striving. The first problem is remembering to act, and is encapsulated by the title of a recent paper by Einstein, McDaniel and colleagues, "forgetting of intentions in demanding situations is rapid" (Einstein, McDaniel, Williford, Pagan, & Dismukes, 2003). That is, dealing with many things at once or being engrossed in a particular task make it difficult to remember to act on one’s goal intention. Indeed, people spontaneously explain their failures to enact their intentions in terms of ‘forgetting’ (e.g., 70% of participants who intended to but did not perform breast self-examination offered this explanation; Orbell, Hodgkins, & Sheeran, 1997).
Seizing an opportune moment to act. Even if one remembers to act, there is a second problem that needs to be solved, namely, seizing an opportune moment to act. This problem is especially acute when people are faced with tight deadlines or small windows of opportunity. In these circumstances, people may fail to initiate goal striving because they do not notice that a good time to get started has arrived or because they are unsure about how they should act when the opportunity presents itself. For instance, Sheeran and Orbell (2000) found that 31% of a sample of women who were invited to attend for cervical cancer screening failed to seize this opportunity (by making the necessary appointment) despite strong intentions to be screened (M = 4.60 on a 1-5 scale).
Second thoughts at the critical moment. Finally, people may not get started with goal-directed behaviors even in situations when they both remember to act and they realize that a good time to act is upon them—because they start to have ‘second thoughts’ at the critical moment. This is the problem of overcoming initial reluctance (Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006) and arises when people intend to perform behaviors that are perceived as having benefits in the long term but costs in the short-term (e.g., take the low-fat lunch option, use a condom). Often it is hard for people to initiate their intended healthy action when faced with a delicious curry on the lunch menu (Roefs et al., 2006) or in the heat of a sexual encounter (Abraham et al., 1999).
Getting Derailed during Goal Striving
Even assuming that the person is successful in initiating goal striving, it is still not yet certain that the goal will be attained. This is because accomplishing important health and social goals generally requires not one single action but rather demands repeated and persistent goal striving. Several problems can arise during the course of goal striving and prevent the realization of one’s goal intention. Three particular problems that can send people off track are addressed here: spontaneously attending to distracting stimuli, falling prey to bad habits, and becoming overwhelmed by negative, intrusive self-states such as distress (see Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006; Gollwitzer, Parks, Jaudas, & Sheeran, 2007, for further elaboration).
Enticing stimuli. Mischel’s (Mischel & Ebbeson, 1970; Mischel & Patterson, 1978; Patterson & Mischel, 1976) classic studies on resistance to temptation demonstrated how spontaneous attention to enticing stimuli can undermine goal achievement. For instance, one experiment found that when children could see a less preferred reward, they succumbed to temptation; when both rewards were absent, they were more likely to wait in order to obtain the preferred reward (Mischel & Ebbeson, 1970; see also Gollwitzer & Schaal, 1998). More recently, Ehrman et al. (2002) found that smokers demonstrate attention biases to smoking-related images compared to both non-smokers and former smokers. Often, however, it is not sufficient merely to suppress attention to opportunities related to competing goal pursuits—suppression of behavioral responses also is needed.
Suppressing behavioral responses. Suppressing such behavioral responses is not easy when the relevant actions have been performed frequently and consistently in the same context, and have thus acquired features of automaticity (i.e., the response has become habitual). A meta-analysis by Ouellette and Wood (1998) showed that when behaviors have been performed repeatedly in stable situational contexts in the past (i.e., circumstances conducive to habit formation) then goal intentions only weakly predict future performance of the behavior. Consistent with this analysis, Garbe and Buettner (2000) found that sunscreen use was compromised by outdoor work habits.
Goal striving also can get derailed when people succumb to the unwanted influence of negative self-states (e.g., negative mood or distress). For instance, Cinciripini et al. (2003) showed that distress undermined smokers’ efforts to quit even controlling for other factors (demographics, self-efficacy, etc.). Tice, Bratslavsky, and Baumeister (2001) showed that when people are in a bad mood they prioritize mood repair over other goals and thus are liable to engage in behaviors assumed to offer solace in the short-term (e.g., consuming high-calorie foodstuff). Sheeran, Aubrey, and Kellett (2007) found that expectations of negative affect (i.e., anticipated feelings of shame or embarrassment) was the key factor that militated against clients attending their scheduled, initial appointments for psychotherapy—even though participants had strong intentions to attend. In sum, unwanted attention responses, unwanted behaviors, and unwanted thoughts and feelings can each drive goal striving off track and prevent people from reaching their goals.