Dealing with conflicting goals

Today I read an amazing paper titled “Behavioural Consistency and Inconsistency in the Resolution of Goal Conflict” by Laran and Janiszewski. It was published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2009, and is one of the most highly cited papers in the field. I think this paper really helped me understand my daily behaviour, and can hopefully help to rectify whatever it is that I do everyday.

Goal Conflict

So what really is goal conflict? Well, most of us have at least two conflicting goals- say eating delicious fatty food vs eating healthy/staying fit. Clearly, chasing after any one of these goals will undercut the other (unless you’re one of those salad-loving freaks). So which of these goals do we end up pursuing?

There are two theories of goal management: active goal guidance (AGG) and passive goal guidance (PGG). The active goal guidance theory states that humans rationally measure and calibrate how close or far they are from their goals, and then make decisions based on that. For instance, after a week full of 4 mile runs, you might calculate that you’ve done enough to deserve a pizza meal tonight. However, humans aren’t always calculating and calibrating. Most of our impulses and desires that shape the bulk of our behaviour stem from something deeper and much more irrational. If there’s a piece of cake lying in your refrigerator that you’ve been avoiding for a day or two because you haven’t been working out at all, there will come a moment when you’ll go stick your head into the refrigerator and just inhale the cake before you know what hit you. This move to eat the cake wasn’t really a result of a conscious, rational calculation. So what’s going on? Hint: it’s the other goal guidance system.

Passive goal guidance is an imprecise goal management system that is always running in the back of our minds when we’re not actively thinking. And it is a pretty shoddy system. How so? Let us assume that you’ve decided to start working out in order to lose weight. It’s your first day, and you go for a run. Ideally, you should continue this for at least a couple of months, eat healthy, and start eating unhealthy food only when you’ve reached your target weight. However, the passive goal guidance system tells you that you’ve done enough towards your fitness goals….on the first day itself! Hence, you disengage with your goal of becoming fitter, and engage with your other goal: to eat delicious fattening foods. All of this is a result of the fact that the passive goal guidance system cannot distinguish between whether you’ve actually achieved your goals or just taken a small step towards them. Hence, we keep bouncing between conflicting goals, never actually attaining either of them.

This is something that resonates very deeply with me. I have multiple goals: to become a good mathematical researcher, to learn about a lot of different and disparate fields, read good fiction and non-fiction, etc. These goals are in conflict because I only have limited time and energy to allot to these goals. Hence, working towards any of them means not working towards the other goals. I can of course use the active goal guidance system to rank these goals in order of importance, and then allot time to them judiciously in order to maximize my personal utility function. However, what ends up happening in practice is that whenever I make even a small amount of progress in one of my goals, I abandon it to pursue something else. Context switching often nullifies whatever little progress I might have made towards any of my goals, and I end up not achieving much towards any of my goals. The most effective strategy that I’ve ever applied to myself is that of not abandoning a task until I finish it completely. Although I couldn’t continue that strategy beyond the first week or so, mostly because of the level of discipline required to carry it out, this strategy effectively eliminated the problem that the passive goal guidance system creates. Hence, my personal experience suggests that the authors are correct: the passive goal system seems to be responsible for a lot of the context switching and procrastination I see in my daily life.

Another important fact to note is that goals are often unconsciously created inside us. For instance, watching an advertisement for the latest cola product might create an unconscious desire inside us to buy it. This kind of unconscious goal creation is called priming, and is also controlled by the passive goal guidance system. Priming plays a very important role in this paper, which will be discussed below.

Goal Management in the presence of conflicting goals

The following quote sums up most of the arguments made above:

Goal management models seek to explain goal pursuit and disengagement in the presence of goal conflict. Fishbach and Dhar (2005, 2008; see also Fishbach, Dhar, and Zhang 2006) propose that the determinant of consistency versus inconsistency in two consecutive behavioral decisions is the extent to which an initial behavioral decision signals goal progress or commitment. They posit that when people perceive an initial act as goal progress, they become less likely to pursue the same goal, and they end up pursuing opposing goals when making the second decision. When people perceive an initial act as commitment to a goal, they become more likely to pursue the same goal when making the second decision. Therefore, people make an inference of how far they are from achieving a certain goal and, depending on whether there is an inference of progress or commitment, choose their subsequent behaviors.

Another interesting aspect to note is that when we have to trade off goals vs resources, we are mostly consistent in our choices. For instance, when faced with either indulging in expensive shopping or saving money (resource), we either consistently buy a lot of expensive things, saving little money, or very rarely buy expensive things, saving a lot of money in the process. We strike some sort of optimum balance, and stick to it. However, when dealing with conflicting goals, we are not consistent in our choices, indiscriminately hopping between eating junk food and trying to have a healthy lifestyle. We rarely ever intend to strike an optimal balance between the two goals: we first religiously stick to one goal, and then completely abandon it to pursue a conflicting goal. This suggests that when deciding what to do with our resources, we let our active guidance system guide us. However, when we’re merely comparing two conflicting goals, eventually our passive goal guidance system takes over, often making contradictory and self-defeating choices for us.

Some features of the passive goal guidance

The propositions of this system of goal guidance are:

  1. As goal activation increases (decreases), means that are relevant to the goal will gain (lose) value. What is goal activation, you ask? Imagine that you read a biography of Elon Musk. You are heavily prepped to do fantastic things and change the world. This is goal activation (and obviously not fulfillment). The means through which you may attain these goals, perhaps your computer and books, gain importance for you, while other unrelated means, like your Xbox, might at least temporarily reduce in value.
  2. When you take a step towards your goal, it might be misinterpreted as goal completion, leading to disengagement with that goal. This has been explained above.
  3. Goal activation for one goal will result in the inhibition of other goals. For instance, as explained above, when your “create something great” goal has been activated, your “play with your Xbox for long hours” goal may take a backseat.
  4. Goal achievement will result in disengagement with that goal, leading to a rebound of previously inhibited goals. For instance, after you’ve achieved your goal of having a great job, your inhibited goal of “spend more time with family” will come to the forefront, and you’ll try to make amends on that front.

    Remember that our false belief of goal completion, promoted and abused by our unconscious mind and our passive goal guidance system, is a major reason why we jump to conflicting goals and fail to accomplish what we’re capable of.

Experiments and discussion

Five different experiments are described in the paper, which I will not discuss in much detail. However, I will discus the results obtained from those experiments, and how they support the main claims of this paper.

Initial steps taken towards goal completion are hugely significant. For example, if you are trying to avoid eating unhealthy food at a party, saying “no” to it early on hugely boosts your chances of not eating that food at all. However, if you decide to partake of a small amount of that food so that you may somehow quench your desire to eat that food, that’ll turn out to be a disastrous strategy, as you’ll soon succumb to eating increasingly large amounts of that unhealthy food. Hence, if you’re going on a diet, throwing out all the unhealthy food in your house is a much better strategy than trying to restrict yourself to “one cookie a day”. This is something that I’ve struggled with myself. “I’ll only check facebook once or twice everyday” has turned out to be a spectacularly bad strategy. What has turned out to be a better strategy is deactivating my profile and saying “no” to all my future selves with less self control.

Active goal guidance is activated when you compare your goal progress with others or your past self, while it fails to be activated when no comparison is being made. For instance, after a run you may compare yourself to a fitter family member and find yourself lacking. You will then persist in your goals for longer. However, if you don’t form any such comparisons, your passive goal guidance system is likely to tell you that you’ve achieved your fitness goals and that you deserve to eat all your favorite junk food.

“Small indulgences” that don’t result in goal completion can prime you for other related goals. For instance, if you’re satiated only after eating a full bowl of chocolates but are allowed to eat only one chocolate, you are more likely to indulge in all kinds of pleasurable activities like eating more chocolates, buying expensive merchandise online, drinking expensive wine, etc for a short while. However, indulging in your guilty pleasures until you’re satiated will result in goal completion, and then you can move on to other conflicting goals. For instance, if you finish a whole bowl of chocolates, you’re more likely to be more interested in healthy food, living a simpler life without expensive indulgences, etc. In some sense, it is better to say “no” right away to an indulgence, or to completely immerse yourself in it until you’re satiated, than to partake only a little of it (which will prime you for bigger indulgences and worse crashes).

Another interesting observation in one of the experiments was that goals eventually fade away with time. For instance, if a TV advertisement primes you to go buy its product, and you restrain yourself from doing so for some time, eventually you’ll disengage with that goal and move on to other things. Hence, if you ever feel a very strong impulse to do something, just restrain yourself for long enough until that goal fades away.


Like everybody else I spend way too much time on my phone, keep jumping between unrelated tasks, procrastinate after completing small subtasks of my main task, find it difficult to complete most tasks, etc. This paper gave me a scientific basis for why this happens, and also an idea for what I can do to reduce such distractions. I can perhaps write a post a month or two later, detailing the extent to which this paper changed my productivity and life.

I also feel that procrastination is the act of jumping between conflicting goals, and am unsure why the authors do not address it in this paper.


  1. Behavioural consistency and inconsistency in the resolution of goal conflict, by Laran and Janiszewski

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