COLUMBUS, Ohio - Have you ever been in a bad mood that you couldn't explain and wondered what put you in a funk?
A researcher at Ohio State University found that such negative "mystery moods" can occur when people fail at a goal that they didn't even know they had.
Tanya Chartrand, assistant professor of psychology, said such nonconscious goals can have significant effects on how we feel and act, and even on how well we achieve other goals.
"If you succeed at a goal you didn't know you had, you're in a good mood and don't know why," Chartrand said. "But if you fail at a nonconscious goal, you're put into this negative, mystery mood."
Chartrand discussed her recent research June 15 in Toronto at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Society.
Nonconscious goals are goals that people have frequently and consistently chosen in particular situations in the past - so much so that they eventually become triggered automatically in those same environments without their conscious thought or even intent, Chartrand explained.
For example, young people who begin attending parties may start by very consciously thinking about how to best present themselves to others, and carefully monitor how they act and what they say. Over time, the features of the party environment become linked in memory with the goals of presenting themselves well. In time, the goals become nonconscious and are triggered automatically every time they go to a party.
Eventually, Chartrand said, they may not even realize they have a goal when they attend a party - but they do.
Chartrand has conducted a variety of studies examining what happens to people when they succeed or fail at these nonconscious goals.
In one study Chartrand conducted, 109 college students were given a scrambled sentence task in which they had to rearrange a series of words to make a sentence. In some cases, the students were "primed" to have a success goal by using words like "strive," "achieve," and "succeed." Other students were given neutral words that would not inspire an achievement goal.
Next, the same students were given a timed anagram task in which they had to rearrange the letters of words to create new words. The students were given either an easy anagram task in which success was assured, or a hard task that was impossible to successfully complete.
All the students then completed a questionnaire that measured their moods.
Results showed that, for participants primed with an achievement goal, those who were given the easy test reported being in a better mood than those who were given the hard test.
But, for participants who were not primed to have an achievement goal, there were no mood differences between those who had the easy test and those who had the hard test.
"We set up the experiment so some participants would have a goal of succeeding at the anagram task - even though they didn't consciously know they had such a goal," Chartrand said. "For these participants, their mood was affected by whether they succeeded or failed. For the other participants, success or failure didn't have an impact on their mood."
In a second study, Chartrand found that failing at nonconscious goals not only had negative affects on mood - it also hurt performance. In this study, participants who were primed to have an achievement goal and then failed at an anagram task did worse on a standardized verbal test than did participants who succeeded at the task. Other studies by Chartrand suggest, though, that participants who fail at nonconscious goals may sometimes be inspired to do better on subsequent performance tests.
"The key is that nonconscious goals can affect both mood and performance," she said.
Chartrand said other research she has conducted shows that people who fail at nonconscious goals try to bolster their self-esteem by stereotyping or disparaging others. "If you fail at a conscious goal, you know why you're in a bad mood. But if you fail at a nonconscious goal you don't know why you're in this mystery mood and you're more likely to stereotype others to help enhance your self-esteem."
Chartrand said nonconscious goals play an important role in everyday life. For example, many students may have nonconscious achievement goals that affect how they act in school. Employees may have similar goals at work.
"Nonconscious goal pursuit is incredibly pervasive because it saves us cognitive resources," she said. "If we constantly had to think about what we want to accomplish in every particular situation, we wouldn't be able to do anything else.
"We are succeeding and failing at these nonconscious goals all the time," she said. "Research is beginning to show how this affects our moods, the way we perform, and the judgments we make about others. It's incredibly important."
Cite This Page: