The psychology of goal setting

Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes his book, “The Black Swan“, as a book about confirmation bias. The black swan is very rare, and if you had never seen nor heard of a black swan you might be inclined to say that they do not exist. In an effort to make sense of the world, we create schema, or mental images of how things are (and should be). Furthermore, we tend to search for information that confirms our schema. Let’s say that my schemata for dogs is that dogs are vicious creatures liable to attack at any time, then I am probably going to attend information that confirms my prior belief. For instance, when reading the newspaper, I would attend to an article about a dog attack a small child, but ignore one about a dog saving a child from drowning. You see, attending to any information that runs counter to my dog schemata, then I would create what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance”, and dissonance creates a feeling of unease.

Now what does this have to do with goal setting, you might ask. Well, quite a lot. We are teleological beings (telos means “purpose” or “goal”). Without the goal of “get food” our ancestors would never have survived. Whether we want to or not, we are always setting goals for ourselves. Typically, when we think of goals we think of conscious goals (purposefully setting out to achieve something), but in the absence of conscious goals, sub-conscious goals are created.

And here is where confirmation bias steps in. The goals we set are dependent on our current beliefs and attitudes about (a) the world and (b) about ourselves. Suppose I set myself an athletics goal. Firstly, suppose that my world view is that people like me are not good long distance so rather than setting myself the goal of completing a marathon, I set myself the goal of completing a 10K race. But then also suppose that – despite setting this goal – I don’t really believe that I am capable of running 10kms. What do you think is going to happen? Well, assuming that I do eventually enter for the 10km race, I am probably not going to have trained properly (why bother, I’m not going to finish anyway). And all through the race I am going to be thinking “I am not going to make it” and… guess what… I probably won’t. I would succeeded in defeating myself.

But lets suppose that even though I don’t really think I am capable of running 10kms, I begin to tell myself that I can run 10kms. The first thing that happens is that I would set up cognitive dissonance; on the one hand my emotional brain tells me it is not possible (perhaps the result of an old parental script) while on the other hand I consciously create an image of myself finishing the 10km race (the imagery is important). Eventually, the emotional centre of the brain (working sub-consciously) begins to replace the old image of failing to finish, with the new image of finishing – and in doing so cognitive dissonance is reduced.

What happens next is that I then start looking for things that confirm this new belief, and I would ignore things that are not congruent with this belief (driven largely by the emotional and attention centres of the brain). I would also be alert to information or people who could help me achieve my goal. When it comes to race day, instead of thinking “I’m not going to make it”, I would be thinking “I can make it” and my mind would urge my legs to carry me over the finishing line.

In the end, by using confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance to our advantage, we are able to achieve what we never thought possible.