We study cognitive, attentional, and perceptual processes that help people manage the complex self-regulatory challenges they face daily. Here are just a few of the topic areas we cover:
How do people effectively resist temptations in order to stay on track to their long-term goals? What processes contribute to successful self-control? What happens after people make goal-consistent or inconsistent choices?
As people work toward achieving goals, they often encounter temptations that threaten to throw them off course. People in committed relationships have a flirtatious encounter at the gym. Dieters are offered a piece of a coworker’s birthday cake. Former smokers come across a forgotten pack of cigarettes in the glove compartment. Indeed, in daily life, temptations abound. In several ongoing lines of work, we explore the self-regulatory processes that emerge during self-control conflicts, as people try to protect their long-term goals from the allure of temptation.
A primary area of work focuses on how motivated perceptual processes contribute to successful self-control. For example, we find that people in committed romantic relationships perceptually downgrade attractive individuals who could present a threat to their relationship (Cole et al., 2016), people who have strong healthy eating goals perceive unhealthy foods as farther away than those who do not (Cole et al., 2021), and people who recently quit smoking visually perceive the negative health consequences of smoking as greater than those who continue to smoke (Cole et al., in prep). These lines of work suggest people unknowingly distort visual information in ways that help to them to resist temptation.
In other lines of work, we explore cognitive factors that enable people to make goal-consistent choices during self-control conflicts, including framing the goal as an aspect of one's identity (Dominick & Cole, 2020). We also use methods like unobtrusive eyetracking to explore the role of individual differences in visual attention to goals and temptations (Cole & Dominick, in prep). We find that individuals whose visual attention is captured by and narrowly focused on goal-relevant rather than temptation-relevant information in the environment experience greater self-regulatory success. Finally, we also explore what happens after people make goal-consistent or inconsistent choices. For example, we find that people's goal-directed choices are reflected in the way they see themselves; people who made goal-consistent health decisions (e.g., exercising) saw themselves as more physically fit than those who did not which made them think they had made more goal progress (Howansky et al., 2019). And we explore the contextual features that influence how people feel about their "good" and "bad" decisions, including whether they made the decision alone or with others (Cole & Dominick, under review).
How do people make progress to attain their goals? What factors make challenging tasks feel easier?
Along with with our close collaborators at NYU, we study how motivated representations of distance help to encourage goal-directed action. We find that the more motivated people are to reach a goal, the closer the goal appears (Cole et al., 2013; Cole & Balcetis, 2013). Moreover, the closer a goal appears, the easier it seems to reach and the faster people actually walk to get there (Balcetis et al., 2016). If perceptions of proximity lead to increased action, is it possible to induce perceptions of proximity? We developed a novel intervention designed to make distances appear shorter and to promote physical activity: narrowed visual attention. Narrowly focusing
on a goal makes it appear closer, which in turn increases action aimed at achieving the goal (Cole et al., 2014). In recent work, we demonstrate the longitudinal benefits of using narrowed attention in real world environments. We trained participants to use the intervention and used GPS tracking to record their walking behaviors over the course of a week (Balcetis et al., 2020). Individuals who learned to narrowly focus their attention on objects in their environment walked faster and more frequently during the week.
How do people manage and mitigate threatening information?
We explore the ways people process and perceive active threats--to their physical safety, to their goals, and to their ideological and intergroup beliefs. In multiple lines of work, we document distortions in the ways people perceive threats. For example, in one line of work we suggest people perceive threats (e.g., a tarantula, a scary man) as physically close relative to neutral or disgusting items (Cole et al., 2013). In another line of work, we show that individuals exaggerate threats to their ideological group (e.g., they perceive more people at an opposition rally), which leads them to engage in more collective action (Cole et al., in prep). Perceiving threats as more imminent or intense may be a functional response geared toward mobilizing people to mitigate the threat. In additional lines of work, we explore how people perceive and respond to individuals who threaten gender norms (Howansky et al., 2020) and we explore how people manage threats to their identity (Albuja et al., in prep). We suggest people may perceive others, as well as themselves, in biased ways in order to help counteract threats.