Subgoals as Substitutes or Complements: The Role of Goal Accessibility

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Abstract

The self-regulation process often involves breaking an ongoing goal (e.g., keeping in shape) into many individual, constituent subgoals that monitor actual actions (e.g., eating healthy meals, going to the gym). The article examines how pursuing each of these subgoals may influence subsequent goal pursuit. The authors show that when people consider success on a single subgoal, additional actions toward achieving a superordinate goal are seen as substitutes and are less likely to be pursued. In contrast, when people consider their commitment to a superordinate goal on the basis of initial success on a subgoal, additional actions toward achieving that goal may seem to be complementary and more likely to be pursued. These predictions were tested in four studies that explored the conditions under which subgoals attainment have a counterproductive versus favorable effect on further pursuit of similar actions.

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