Action-Inaction & Motivation

General Action and Inaction Goals


Our current work on cognition and motivation addresses what I call general action and inaction goals (Albarracin et al., 2008). Of course, patterns of overall activity and inactivity (e.g., awake/sleep cycles) are regulated biologically in humans and nonhuman animals. However, we argue that similar patterns are also socially and culturally regulated. For example, certain cultures (contemporary US) and certain religions (Christianity and Judaism) appear to prescribe activity to the point where individuals conclude thatdoing is more important than what they actually do (Hepler, Albarracin, McCulloch, & Noguchi, 2011; Albarracin et al., 2008, JPSP). To advance our understanding of this issue, we have collected experimental data (e.g., Albarracin et al., 2008, 2011), neuro-imaging data (Hepler & Albarracin, 2013), cross-cultural data (Zell et al., 2013; Hepler et al., 2013; Ireland et al., 2013; Jones et al., 2013), and archival data (Noguchi et al., 2011; Xu & Albarracin, 2013). In the lab, participants primed with action words (active, go) engage in more behaviors than participants primed with inaction words (rest, stop). Depending on what behavior is focal given the experimental situation, participants primed with action fold more paper airplanes, exercise more, eat more, learn better, and participate more in politics. In contrast, participants primed with inaction (stop, rest) engage in these behaviors to a lesser extent.


This conceptualization has allowed us to generate behavioral patterns of the type observed in impulsivity/mania vs. depression in the real world (Albarracin, in press; Albarracin, Handley, et al., 2008). In addition, our work has shown that the experimental effects of the primes can derive from general action and inaction goals (e.g., wanting to do something, irrespective of the task, vs. wanting to do nothing, irrespective of how that is achieved). In two experiments using ERPs (Event Related Potentials) during a Go/No Go task, comparing Action, Control, Inaction primes revealed that inaction primes resulted in a significantly larger P3 (Cz, Fz, and Pz) than action primes. This suggests that inaction prompts can elicit inhibitory control processes engaged nonconsciously (a) by stimuli that have never been consciously associated with task-specific inhibitory responses and (b) in the absence of participants’ intentions to modulate inhibitory control as a consequence of the prime stimuli.


The insights from this line of research have important implications for mental health. For example, in a large cross-cultural study, we have linked psychological functioning to socially set goals and different religions (Christianity vs. Buddhism) (Albarracin, 2013). The US exhibits greater impulsivity and less depression than Japan. The differences in impulsivity are mediated by stronger Christian beliefs, more favorable attitudes about action, and less favorable attitudes about inaction in the US than in Japan. Correspondingly, the differences in depression are mediated by stronger Buddhist beliefs, less favorable attitudes about action, and more favorable attitudes about inaction in Japan than in the US.


We believe that one reason for the differences in attitudes about action and inaction has to do with available resources facilitating action, including level of economic development and space. In particular, the availability of dispensable capital and large areas of territory may contribute to setting general action goals in a bottom-up fashion. Once there is accumulation of capital, for example, many new activities are possible (shopping, traveling, trying out new sports, performing more educational activities). The enactment of many activities can instill favorable attitudes about general action via various mechanisms including self-perception. These patterns have received some support in archival analyses and are currently being examined experimentally.


Previous research suggests that space constraints increase regulation of motor and social activity, but the same constraints may also enhance regulation of impulsive behaviors that are otherwise unrelated to space (Xu & Albarracin, 2013). Supporting this hypothesis, international and US data showed that more densely populated regions have a lower prevalence of overweight and obesity and lower rates of road traffic deaths than less densely populated regions. Manipulating physical space constraints by assigning participants to different-sized rooms, three experiments demonstrated that smaller (vs. larger) spaces yield less motivation to purchase products, less consumption of high-calorie foods, and fewer false alarms in a Go/No-Go task.

Psychology Department, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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