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When Intentions Go Public

date Oct 17, 2018
authors Gollwitzer, Sheeran, Michalski, Seifert
reading time 6 mins
category research paper

General summary

Study 4 showed, in addition, that when other people take notice of an individual’s identity-related behavioral intention, this gives the individual a premature sense of possessing the aspired-to identity.

The substitute activity

…people often construe behavioral intentions in more general terms, thus allowing substitution of means for attainment. For instance, consider a student who has started an assigned math task with the intention to successfully solve the required addition problems. During the process, this student may construe the intention as being to demonstrate mathematical skills, and this conceptually broader intention may also be reached by solving subtraction problems (i.e., by substitute activities). Ovsiankina and Mahler observed that a substitute activity engenders a sense of having reached the conceptually broader intention, given that performance of the substitute activity has been witnessed by other people.

Long paragraph, but let’s deconstruct it

… people who are committed to identity goals (e.g., becoming a good parent, scientist, or craftsperson) can undertake a variety of activities to claim goal attainment. For a scientist, such activities, or identity symbols, include engaging in professional duties (e.g., giving lectures), making positive self-descriptions (e.g., I discovered a new principle!), exerting identity-relevant social influence (e.g., advising students), and acquiring skills and tools that facilitate striving for the identity goal (e.g., programming skills, computers). However, failing to perform an identity-relevant activity or facing the lack of an identity symbol produces a state of incompleteness. To restore completeness, the individual makes efforts to acquire alternative identity symbols e.g., describing oneself as having the required personality attributes, engaging in identity-relevant activities, showing off relevant status symbols. Using opportunities to affirm one’s general self-integrity or to bolster one’s self-esteem is not sufficient to offset incompleteness regarding an identity goal; rather, it is necessary to acquire specific identity symbols.

Examples of identity goals:

  • a good parent
  • scientist
  • craftsperson

Examples of activities for goal attainment:

  • engaging in professional duties (giving lectures)
  • making positive self-descriptions (I discovered a new principle)
  • exerting identity-relevant social influence (advising students)
  • acquiring skills and tools that facilitate striving for the identity goal (programming skills, computers)

Examples of activities to restore completeness:

  • describing oneself as having the required personality attributes
  • engaging in identity-relevant activities
  • showing off relevant status symbols

Incomplete vs complete goal attainment

… an individual reaches a higher level of completeness when his or her identity-relevant activities are noticed by a social audience. Moreover, research has shown that incomplete individuals are more concerned with finding an audience for their identity strivings, compared with complete individuals. Positive self-descriptions made in public qualify as powerful identity symbols.

How does people taking notice of intentions reduces the need to perform the actual actions?

The implication is that when other people take notice of a stated identity-relevant behavioral intention, this should engender completeness regarding the superordinate identity goal, and thus reaching the identity goal by actually performing the intended behavior should become less necessary. In other words, people should be less likely to translate their identity-relevant behavioral intentions into action when other people have taken notice of those intentions.

Study 2 - was this replicated? Or is this replicable?

In Study 2, therefore, we observed actual enactment of intentions. Participants were law students who formed the behavioral intention to make use of identity-relevant educational opportunities. This intention was then either noticed by other people or ignored. We then observed the degree to which participants acted on their intention when such an educational opportunity was actually provided.

Result of a study conducted

As expected, aspiring clinical psychologists whose behavioral intention to study videotaped therapy sessions had been noticed by the experimenter invested less time in watching the video than did aspiring clinical psychologists whose intentions remained unnoticed.

Only matters for people with strong commitment to the identity related goals

As expected, participants with a strong commitment to the identity goal of becoming a clinical psychologist spent less time studying the videotaped therapy session if they were in the social-reality condition than if they were in the no-social-reality condition. In contrast, participants with weak commitment to the identity goal spent close to the same amount of time studying the therapy session no matter whether they had or had not received social recognition for their behavioral intention to study videotapes of therapy sessions


When other people take notice of one’s identity-relevant behavioral intentions, one’s performance of the intended behaviors is compromised. Other people’s taking notice of one’s identity-relevant intentions apparently engenders a premature sense of completeness regarding the identity goal.

How might one try to escape this effect?

First, might it suffice to increase the need for consistency by attending to relevant norms? Or is it also necessary to increase perceived accountability by considering relevant attributes of the audience or by specifying one’s behavioral intention in a particular way (e.g., spelling out specific frequency or quality standards vs. stating only that one wants to do one’s best) so that the audience can more easily check on its enactment? Second, might it also be effective for one to furnish a behavioral intention with a plan for how to enact it — that is, to form a corresponding implementation intention (e.g., If situation X is encountered, then I will perform the intended behavior Y?


  • get appropriate audience for accountability
  • specify behavioral intentions with frequency and quality standards
  • set a plan for checking effectiveness
  • indicate commitment to a goal


  • do your best
  • conceive a performance in terms of progress towards a goal

… interpreting a behavioral performance in terms of indicating commitment to a goal enhances further goal striving, whereas conceiving of a performance in terms of progress toward a goal reduces further goal striving.


This implies that a behavioral intention worded to indicate a strong commitment to the identity goal (e.g., “I want to write a paper to become a great scientist”) should be less negatively affected by social reality than a behavioral intention that implies progress toward the identity goal (e.g., “I intend to write a paper, as is done by great scientists”).

Subgoal vs a more difficult to attain subgoal

If a person is highly committed to a superordinate goal, and if public recognition of a behavioral intention specifying the use of one route to the goal engenders a sense of goal attainment, then the enactment of this very intention should be hampered …success on a subgoal (e.g., eating healthy meals) in the service of a superordinate goal (i.e., keeping in shape) reduces striving for alternative subgoals (e.g., going to the gym).