Goal pursuit has traditionally been considered a conscious act. Recent discoveries, however, have caused a reevaluation of the causal relationship between deciding to act and the actions themselves. In a review of the unconscious will, researchers Ruud Custers and Henk Aarts state, “Under some conditions, actions are initiated even though we are unconscious of the goals to be attained or their motivating effect on behavior.” Although most humans generally feel as if they alone decide what they want, and what they do, scientific research suggests otherwise. In one early experiment, researchers asked participants to move their index fingers at their discretion only to find that the preparation of the action itself in the brain occurred before the person became aware of the decision to act. This suggests that determination acts unconsciously before the conscious decision to engage in goal pursuit behavior is realized. In another experiment, various students were given two seemingly unrelated language puzzles. The first puzzle included words related to achievement, while the second did not. Researchers found that the students exposed to achievement words outperformed the ones constructing the second puzzle. This suggests that subconsciously, the achievement students were primed beforehand to gain a sense of accomplishment; that their pursuit of achievement was unconsciously decided while putting together the puzzle. Several other experiments support these findings, which show that goal pursuit is influenced and controlled unconsciously by social factors that create associations in the brain. Future research intends to explore how unconscious goals control actions and how the brain systems translate these goals into behavior.
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