Human Motivation & Affective Neuroscience Lab
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Latest News: 13 Dezember 2010
What color naming speed reveals about the wisdom of one's goal choices

Research recently conducted at the HuMAN Lab suggests that the speed with which people can name a color patch reveals quite a bit about how wisely they choose their goals in everyday life. Starting from the observation that the goals people commit to and pursue in their daily lives match their unconscious (i.e., implicit) motivational needs only about half of the time, Schultheiss and colleagues wanted to find out what's behind our inability to choose motive-congruent goals more consistently.

The authors reasoned that because implicit motives operate nonverbally whereas goals are typically formed and represented verbally (e.g., "I want to get a PhD in psychology"), the speed with which information can be translated between the verbal and nonverbal domains is critical for making goal choices that are congruent with a one's implicit motives. To test this hypothesis, they had their participants read simple color words (e.g., "red", "blue"), which only required reading and speaking a word, and name the color of monochromatic squares, which required the translation of a nonverbal stimulus into a verbal response. In general, participants were slower when they had to name the colors than when they simply had to read the words, indicating that translation between verbal and nonverbal types of information takes extra effort in comparison to dealing only with verbal information. But there was also substantial variation in this speed difference: some individuals were about as quick naming colored squares as they were reading color words, whereas others were much slower at naming colors than they were at reading words. Across three studies conducted in the US and in Germany, Schultheiss and colleagues found that the quick color-namers pursued personal goals that matched their implicit motives well, whereas the slow color-namers were less lucky in this regard: they frequently committed themselves to goals that had little to do with their implicit motivational preferences (Schultheiss, Patalakh, Rawolle, Liening, & McInnes, 2011).

But why should anyone even care whether one's goals fit one's implicit motives? "An abundance of studies shows that people who pursue goals that fit their motives are happy and productive, whereas people who pursue goals that don't fit their motives are unhappy and can become depressed. That's why we think it's critical to find out why people choose the wrong types of goals in the first place," says Oliver Schultheiss, director of the HuMAN Lab and lead author of the paper.

Schultheiss's past research provides a clue what people can do to choose motive-congruent goals, even if they are slow in translating back and forth between verbal and nonverbal types of information. In a series of studies, Schultheiss and Brunstein (1999, 2002) demonstrated that engaging in goal imagery, that is, in the active imagination of the pursuit and attainment of a potential goal, and attending to one's gut responses to the imagery helps people to find out whether the goal would fit their motives or not. Schultheiss and colleagues new research shows that individual differences in color-naming speed predict motive-congruent goal choices only if people do NOT engage in goal imagery. But as soon as they are instructed to do so, differences in color-naming speed to longer matter and everybody makes wiser goal choices. Thus, strategic regulation of information processing can override individual differences in habitual information processing styles. As Schultheiss states: "Making wise goal choices is not predetermined by your cognitive biases. It can be learned!"

Previous releases:

Are you high on testosterone and is that a good thing? Listen to Podcast of interview with Dr. Oliver Schultheiss on UM NewsService

New edited book on implicit motives available (October 2009)

What the word "not" may reveal about your ability to handle stress (October 2008)

Estrogen fuels female power (February 2008)

High-testosterone people reinforced by others’ anger, new study finds (February 2007)

Study finds US students more motivated to achieve, less power-hungry than German students (August 2006)

Are all people stressed out by a defeat or does it hurt some more than others? (April 2006)

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