The term “goal” refers to a future state of affairs that a person wishes to attain or maintain. Goals prompt planning, which, in turn, serves as the basis for action. From these simple premises, it is apparent that the core function of goals is to regulate behavior and that communicative goals and plans fall under the broader conceptual umbrella of behavioral goals and plans.
Theories that invoke the goal concept also embrace three general principles (Powers 1973). First, goals are arranged hierarchically and, therefore, necessarily vary in their level of abstraction. Second, regardless of hierarchical level, goal-directed behaviors are responsive to feedback concerning the discrepancy between the current and desired future states. Finally, goals are abandoned when they are achieved or when the expectation for success falls below some individually determined threshold.
The Concept Of Goals
A person’s goals are structured in hierarchies. As an example of hierarchy, consider that a person who possesses the goal of maintaining good health might intend to consume fruits and vegetables, to exercise regularly, and to get periodic check-ups. Each of these aims, in turn, generates various lower-level goals: avoiding fast food, learning to cross-country ski, and making an appointment with the physician. Each of the action sequences associated with these lower-level goals can themselves be decomposed ad infinitum.
Goals also prompt action. When an action is carried out, the consequence of that action is compared to the goal. In this way, feedback is provided to the cognitive system that monitors progress toward the goal. However, the fact that multiple goal-feedback cycles are occurring simultaneously at different levels in the goal hierarchy introduces a degree of complexity. To regulate behavior at any given time, the cognitive system needs to coordinate goal-feedback cycles across levels in the goal hierarchy. Difficulty arises because lower-level goal-feedback cycles occur more rapidly than higher-level goal-feedback cycles.
Coordination among the goal-feedback cycles at different levels is achieved through two means: top-down control and inhibition. One top-down process operates by activating cognitive mechanisms attuned to the goal. In the perceptual realm, this mechanism is captured by the adage, “All the hungry man sees is food.” Goal-relevant information in memory also becomes more accessible once the goal is adopted. The second mechanism – inhibition – involves suppression of competing goals. This occurs by circumscribing action tendencies that might work in opposition to the prepotent goal.
Goal-based models of communication typically incorporate a comparative mechanism that assesses the discrepancy between the goal and the current state of affairs. When that discrepancy reaches zero, the goal has been achieved and no further effort is required. However, goals may be abandoned for reasons other than success. In particular, lowering the estimations of success may diminish motivation to achieve the goal. Such changes in likelihood often result when multiple attempts to achieve the goal are met with failure. Berger (1997) has demonstrated that our desire to conserve cognitive resources can work against the need to alter our behavior in the face of goal failure. Because of the greater effort required to change major components of the behavioral plan, individuals sometimes alter trivial elements (e.g., volume) that are unlikely to increase the efficacy of the action.
Goals In Action
A cognitive perspective on goals emphasizes their psychological qualities insofar as they reside in individuals. On this basis, some writers have asserted that goals may explain action, but not interaction (e.g., Bavelas 1991). The argument is premised on the observation that individuals do not seek to attain their aims in isolation, but rather they must co-construct a conversation with another individual who surely has their own set of goals. From this perspective, then, goal-based explanations fail to illuminate communicative interaction because of their focus on the individual. They may explain monologue, but not dialogue. Such an argument makes sense only if we assume that individuals’ goals remain static over the course of the conversation. Empirical research shows that this is a dubious assumption.
Waldron (1997) had dyads interact with one another for 8 minutes, after which time he separated the research participants and asked them to review a tape of their conversation. An experimenter stopped the tape every 30 seconds and participants rated the importance of five goals for the preceding time period. His analysis revealed that 30 percent of the intervals showed a significant shift in goal importance. Using a similar method, Keck & Samp (2007) found that 66 percent of the intervals in their investigation showed goal shift during a conflict interaction. The Keck & Samp study made another important contribution to research on goals by demonstrating the effect of partner behavior on individuals’ goals. For example, when one person behaved in a distributive fashion, the other interactant subsequently rated their own other-identity goal as less important. In sum, just as goal-based theories of message production predict (e.g., Dillard 1990; Berger 1997), the evidence supports the notion that interlocutors adapt their goals and behavior to one another during conversation.
Goal Formation And Multiple Goals
Cognitive models of message production assume that individuals possess knowledge of a range of interaction goals as well as the circumstances that might facilitate or threaten goal achievement. This information is stored in memory, where memory is modeled as an associative network. Wilson (1995) proposes the existence of cognitive rules that link interaction goals to information about the situation that is relevant to particular goals (see also Greene 1997; Meyer 2000). Such rules are activated by a match between the situational features associated with the rule and the perceived features of the situation in which the actors finds themselves. For example, a message source is likely to form the goal of “enforcing an obligation” when (1) an individual of lesser status (2) fails to perform a promised behavior that (3) has consequences for the source (Wilson 2002, 169). A goal is likely to be formed to the extent that there are more, rather than fewer, relevant features perceived to be present in the situation or, equivalently, to the degree that the circumstances fit the rule. In addition to the fit criterion, the likelihood that a rule will result in goal formation depends on the strength of the rule and the recency with which it has been activated. The strength of a rule can be conceived of as the degree to which the set of situational features demands a particular action.
Social interaction frequently requires interlocutors to manage multiple goals. Individuals are not only trying to achieve their objectives, but they may also be trying to demonstrate respect, minimize imposition, control their anxiety, or avoid damaging the relationship. From this, it follows that coordinating multiple aims is a more challenging undertaking than the pursuit of a single objective. Indeed, there is evidence that, relative to single goals, managing multiple goals is more effortful and consumes more cognitive resources (e.g., Greene & Lindsay 1989).
- Bavelas, J. B. (1991). Some problems linking goals to discourse. In K. Tracy (ed.), Understanding face-to-face interaction: Issues linking goals and discourse. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 119 –130.
- Berger, C. R. (1997). Planning strategic interaction: Attaining goals through communicative action. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Dillard, J. P. (1990). A goal-driven model of interpersonal influence. In J. P. Dillard (ed.), Seeking compliance: The production of interpersonal influence messages. Scottsdale, AZ: GorsuchScarisbrick, pp. 41–56.
- Greene, J. O. (1997). A second generation action assembly theory. In J. O. Greene (ed.), Message production: Advances in communication theory. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 151–170.
- Greene, J. O., & Lindsay, A. E. (1989). Encoding processes in the production of multiple-goal messages. Human Communication Research, 16, 120 –140.
- Keck, K. L., & Samp, J. A. (2007). The dynamic nature of goals and message production as revealed in a sequential analysis of conflict interactions. Human Communication Research, 33, 27– 47.
- Meyer, J. R. (2000). Cognitive models of message production: Unanswered questions. Communication Theory, 10, 176 –187.
- Powers, W. T. (1973). Behavior: The control of perception. Chicago, IL: Aldine.
- Waldron, V. R. (1997). Toward a theory of interactive conversational planning. In J. O. Greene (ed.), Message production: Advances in communication theory. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 195 –220.
- Wilson, S. R. (1995). Elaborating the cognitive rules model of interaction goals: The problem of accounting for individual differences in goal formation. In B. R. Burleson (ed.), Communication yearbook 18. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 3 –25.
- Wilson, S. R. (2002). Seeking and resisting compliance: What people say, what they do when trying to influence others. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.