Isn’t it Ironic?

Goal setting is a powerful tool that you can harness to create change in your life. Whether it’s to improve your financial situation by becoming more frugal or becoming a better athlete by training harder, goal setting is the engine that can drive the change you’re looking for.

Not all goals (and goal setting programs) are created equal. When we want to change our behaviour (often the reason for setting up goals or “New Year’s Resolutions”) you can get more mileage out of your goals if you make them about positive action instead of the opposite, negative in action.

Here’s an example of what I mean by positive action vs. negative inaction. In both goal statements I’m looking to achieve the same outcome but they attack the problem from different angles.

Outcome: Lose 5 pounds by April 1st.
Positive Action: When I make meals I will include 2 different vegetables.
Negative Inaction: When I make meals I will not use ingredients high in simple carbohydrates.

Making either change will ultimately lead me to my goal of losing the 5 pounds, however, research consistently shows that by using positive action I will be more likely to reach my goal than if I use negative inaction.

This type of goal setting plays a prominent role in sport. Consider a typical standard run. You are trying to get that Q and recognize that the last 3 opportunities you had, you’ve left your dog before they’ve committed to an obstacle and earned faults. When you looked at your video you noticed that in order to get to where you wanted to be, you were rushing instead of waiting for your dog to commit. So for your next run, you set your goal – “Don’t Rush!”. Sure enough, you rush again, and get the same result.

Now in some weird time travel loop thingy that even the writers from Star Trek can’t explain, you quickly fly into the future and read this post about yourself and realize your mistake. You were using a negative inaction style of goal. So when you zip back to your place in the time-space continuum, you chose a new goal for your next run. This time you decide on a positive action style goal. You set your goal – “Be Patient!” Lo and behold, your next run is clean. You did it!

This all sounds well and good, but how do we know that it had anything to do with how the goal was set. Well here’s a cool study some clever thinking researchers came up with to test it out. Oh, by the way, they call this effect “Ironic Processes”.

The idea is that the brain represents the performance of and the avoidance of the same behaviour very similarly. Almost identical areas of the brain are active when you are trying to “do” a specific behaviour as are active when you are trying “not to do” the same behaviour. This results in some “leaking” of the behaviour in the negative situation.

So back to the cool study. Two groups of participants were asked to hold a pendulum (a small weight attached to a string) over a target for a minute and the researchers measured how well they did (their error) by looking at how far off target they were, both side to side and front to back.

Now one group was told to do the best they could (the control group) and the other group was told to do the best they could, but make sure the pendulum didn’t swing side to side (the experimental group).

When the researchers looked at the measurements, the set of instructions had a big impact on the results. The control group showed roughly equal amount of error both side to side, and front to back. The experimental group results were very different. While there was some error front to back, there were huge movements of the pendulum side to side. Exactly what the researchers asked the participants not to do – i.e., negative inaction. Isn’t that ironic.

Getting back to the agility example, by trying not to rush (negative inaction), you are activating the areas in the brain responsible for rushing and are setting yourself up for some trouble. When you use positive action goals (e.g., Be patient), you are activating the areas of the brain responsible for the behaviour you want and thus are more likely to be successful.

Give it a try but I don’t want to hear anyone setting a goal of not setting negative inaction goals ;-).

Leave A Reply (3 comments so far)

The comments are closed.

  1. Claire
    6 years ago

    So this is the scientific explanation of why the brain “does not understand negative” ?
    Brilliant and very usefull !

  2. Kristi
    6 years ago

    I have to admit, I am greatly amused with the notion of my “leaky brain.” I am also looking forward to playing with this notion. For example, as a parent, it seems I would get farther with, “Please leave your brother alone” rather than “Please don’t bother your brother.”

  3. Lee
    6 years ago

    You can experiment with this yourself at the local sub shop. Order whatever sub you want and when they ask you, “lettuce, onion, tomato”, reply “no tomato”. Most people will automatically reach for the tomatoes. Some people simply have a brief hesitation, others will have their hand in the tomatoes before they stop and ask again what you want. Or you can ask for “onion, lettuce only” and stop messing with their brains.

    Have fun, but play nice.

Follow me on Twitter