Action-Inaction and Motivation

Characterizing general action and inaction goals and how they have an impact on individuals and on society as a whole.

Is taking action to solve a problem better than not doing so?

Our lab has identified an intriguing phenomenon: People form goals to take action even before they decide what the action will be, and this can have several important social consequences. We are investigating how to best promote the advantages of inaction as well as the impact of general action goals on well-being and feelings of community connection.

Selected Findings:

Eliciting general action goals produces diffuse effects on behavior.

Reminders of general action (e.g., the word “go”) make people more likely to engage in productive behaviors like learning and exercising but also eat and act impulsively.

When people are in a bad mood, action goals actively undermine those goals.

Reminders to act decrease activity when people experience negative emotions.

We value action more than inaction, even before we consider the outcomes of each.

People value effortful action — for example, running, solving an intellectual problem —  more than strategies that favor inaction, such as waiting to gather more data. For example, pressing a button is perceived as more beneficial than not pressing it, even before they know what the button will do.

People have a harder time paying attention to inaction.

Our lab has also shown that when people set action goals, they often do so without much regard for how positive, healthy, or socially beneficial the specific activities are. We also discovered that people have difficulty paying attention to inaction.

People form fewer goals of inaction.

One important consequence of the greater difficulty of paying attention to action are less inclined to set inaction goals. For instance, new year resolutions are all about action, even though the goals of eating or drinking less are often beneficial.

Action creates stability while inaction enables change.

Our research in this area has led us to theorize about some beneficial outcomes of inaction. Inaction goals can increase individuals’ openness to attitude change. When people who set an action goal expect to receive a persuasive message, the goal induces recall of prior attitudes in the domain being considered. Consequently, action goals decrease the impact of new information because the new information is interpreted through the prior attitudes. The most effective time to encourage behavior change is to address message recipients when they are motivated to be passive rather than active.

Action goals distract you more than inaction goals.

Because we are built to track actions, goals of inaction — such as what not to eat — are less distracting than action goals. So, more action goals produce more errors in our behavior. If we get people to pay attention to their inactions, then their inactions can also lead to more errors.

Packaging either actions or inactions together is better for behavioral change.

When you’re trying to change your behaviors, you may be more successful if you change either several actions or several inactions. In contrast, mixing action and inaction goals appears to be counterproductive, probably because action and inaction goals engage different brain structures.

All cultures value action, but Eastern cultures value inaction more than Western ones.

In a study of people in 20 different countries, participants from all regions tend to value action. We theorize that over millennia, taking action was likely a beneficial adaptation. However, people from across East Asian countries valued inaction more than those from other areas.

Cultures that value equality are more likely to also value action.

Countries with horizontal cultures have more positive attitudes toward actions than those from countries with vertical cultures. Apparently, horizontal cultures promote people who will try to actively address problems rather than wait for the higher-ups to tell them what to do.