Self-regulation of goal setting and goal disengagement
My research addresses two broad questions: (1) What self-regulatory strategies can people use to turn their positive fantasies about the future into binding goals, and (2) what self-regulatory strategies can people use to disengage from their goals? The research relates to various areas in social and personality psychology, developmental and educational psychology, as well as health and clinical psychology.
Engagement to goals
Mentally contrasting a desired future with present reality leads to the emergence of binding goals with consecutive goal striving and goal attainment, as long as chances of success are perceived to be high. To the contrary, mentally elaborating either the desired future only (indulging) or the present reality only (dwelling) leads to moderate goal commitment, even if chances of success look promising. These effects were observed in a variety of life domains (e.g., interpersonal relations, academic achievement, professional achievement, health, life management) and with different paradigms (e.g., salience, reinterpretation). Recently, we have discovered the underlying cognitive and motivational processes of mental contrasting and also applied this self-regulatory technique in intervention studies. Finally, we analyzed mental contrasting with implementation intentions (MCII) as an effective strategy to change bad habits in the achievement, interpersonal, and health domains.
Disengagement from goals
Mentally contrasting a desired future with present reality leads to disengagement from goals, if chances of success are perceived to be low. Mentally elaborating either the desired future only (indulging) or the present reality only (dwelling) to the contrary, maintains goal commitment even when chances of success are perceived as being low. Again, we have demonstrated these effects in various life domains (e.g., interpersonal relations, health) and with different paradigms. Currently, we are using mental contrasting procedures to help people disengage from goals that are not feasible (e.g., from a damaged relationship, from an unattainable professional identity). People simply have to mentally contrast their desired future with present reality. If chances of success are perceived as being low, the disengagement process can begin so that people can move on to more feasible goals.
Committing to approach goals versus avoidance goals
Mental contrasting does not only turn positive fantasies about a desired future into binding approach goals but also turns negative fantasies about an undesired future into binding avoidance goals. More specifically, people must contrast negative fantasies about an undesired, feared future with positive aspects of the current, safe reality, and expectations of successfully avoiding the undesired future have to be high. Using mental contrasting to turn fearful fantasies into constructive avoidance goals should be of particular importance when people have a hard time generating positive fantasies about the future (e.g., in the health domain, or in situations involving prejudice against members of an out-group).
Indulging and the uncontrollable
Can indulging in a positive future have beneficial effects on motivation and well-being? We find that when facing controllable and escapable tasks, people benefit from mentally contrasting fantasy with reality. However, when facing tasks that cannot be mastered or relinquished (e.g., being terminally ill), indulging in positive fantasies should be beneficial, because it allows one to “stay in the field.”
Culture and self-regulatory thought
In the past, I conducted research on how cultural and political factors shape the development of efficacy beliefs, control beliefs, and attributional styles. I now ask the question of how cultural factors influence the development of the three modes of self-regulatory thought (i.e., mental contrasting, indulging, dwelling). For example, we are investigating the prevalence of the three modes of self-regulatory thought in cultures that differ in their degree of norm-orientation.
Coping with stress and interpersonal relations
We also analyze the psychological processes that make people who mentally contrast sensitive to chances of success and make people who indulge and dwell insensitive to chances of success. For example, we ask whether mental contrasting instead of indulging/dwelling promotes differential processing of relevant performance feedback, differential evaluations of critical experiences, and differential ways of coping with failure as well as acute and chronic stress. Another line of research focuses on the interpersonal consequences of mental contrasting versus indulging and dwelling. In comparison to mental contrasting, indulging and dwelling should make people disregard the needs and behaviors of their interaction partners (e.g., romantic partner, child, employee). This insensitivity then might affect the interaction partner’s direct responses as well as his or her long-term thoughts, feelings, and actions (e.g., aspirations, attitudes, decisions).