Implementation intention

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An implementation intention (II) is a self-regulatory strategy in the form of an "if-then plan" that can lead to better goal attainment, as well as help in habit and behavior modification. It is subordinate to goal intentions as it specifies the when, where and how portions of goal-directed behavior. The concept of implementation intentions was introduced in 1999 by psychologist Peter Gollwitzer.[1] Studies conducted in 1997 and earlier showed that the use of implementation intentions can result in a higher probability of successful goal attainment, by predetermining a specific and desired goal-directed behavior in response to a particular future event or cue.[2]


The concept of implementation intentions originated from research on goal striving throughout the late 1980s and 1990s. Developing research suggested that "the correlations between intentions and behavior are modest, in that intentions account for only 20% to 30% of the variance in behavior." [3] Strong intentions ("I strongly intend to do X") were observed to be more often realized than weak intentions. Past behavior still tended to be a better predictor for a person's future behavior when it was compared to goal intentions. The research also suggested that the weak intention-behavior relation is a result of people having good intentions, but failing to act on them.[4]

This inspired a growing body of research to help determine ways in which peoples' good intentions could be made more effective in accomplishing desired goals. Emerging research proposed the notion that successful goal attainment is in part attributable to the manner in which goal setting criteria are framed. For example, a person will perform better when set goals are challenging and specific as compared to goals that are challenging but vague (known as the goal-specificity effect).[5] Emerging research also suggested a goal-proximity effect (wherein proximal goals lead to better performance than distal goals).[6] The strategy of implementation intentions was developed on the basis of these findings.


People generally have positive intentions, but often fail to act on them.[7] The question is how to ensure that the set goal intentions will reliably lead to the desired goal-directed behaviors, and subsequent attainment of those goals. Implementation intentions offer a practical solution for such a problem.

Achieving one's goals requires that certain goal-directed behaviors be instituted, but people are often unsuccessful in either initiating or maintaining these behaviors. The problems of initiating and maintaining goal-directed behavior can be addressed by using the implementation intention process. This if-then plan is a very specific approach as compared to goal intentions. A goal intention may be phrased in the following way: "I want to reach X!" Implementation intentions on the other hand are much more specific and seek to connect a future critical situation (an opportunity for goal attainment) with a specific goal-directed behavior, thereby leading to what could be called automatization in goal attainment. They are often phrased in the following way: "When situation X arises, I will perform response Y!"[8] Where goal intentions are more general and abstract, implementation intentions are much more concrete and procedural.

Having formed a concrete plan involving a specific situation, this situation then becomes mentally represented and activated, leading to better perception, attention and memory concerning the critical situation. As a result, the chosen goal-directed behavior (the then-part of the plan) will be performed automatically and efficiently, without conscious effort. The automatization of the behavior in response to the future situation or cue, removes all hesitation and deliberation on the part of the decision maker when such a critical situation arises. This also has the effect of freeing cognitive resources for other mental processing tasks, and also for avoiding goal-threatening distractions or competing goals. It is also assumed that an implementation intention, once set, will continue operating non-consciously. This process is called strategic automaticity.

The strength of commitment related to both the plan set and the goal is very important for the implementation intention to have an effect on people's behavior. Without commitment, an implementation intention will hardly have any effect on goal-directed behavior.

In the phase model of action, the use of implementation intention takes place in the post-decisional phase (implemental mindset, volition is the driving force of action) which follows the predecisional phase (deliberative mindset, motivation is the driving force of setting goals).[9] In the implemental mindset, a person is already committed to a goal and an implementation intention can be a good strategy to reach this goal.

The basic structure of an implementation intention is as follows:

IF {situation} THEN I will {behaviour}

Empirical support[edit]

Implementation intentions have been very successful in helping individuals achieve targeted and specific goals over the years, as indicated by a survey of the research.

Physical health goals[edit]

Implementation intentions have been found to be particularly effective in unpleasant goal pursuits such as health-promotion (e.g. balanced and nutritious diet) and disease-prevention (e.g. daily exercise) behaviors, where there may be significant immediate costs and only long-term rewards. Of women who set themselves the goal of performing a breast self-examination over the next month, 100% actually did so if they were induced to form an implementation intention, compared to 53% of women who were not induced to form an implementation intention.[10]

In a 2-month study investigating the effect of implementation intentions on weight loss, obese women between the ages of 18-76 were either instructed to create specific implementation intentions regarding their dieting and exercise (e.g. when, where, and what I will eat during the upcoming week; Where, when, how will I exercise during the upcoming week), or simply attend health, diet and stress-related group meetings. The women that were asked to create specific implementation intentions lost on average 4.2 kg, compared to those who only attended weekly group meetings, who on average lost only 2.1 kg over the 2-month period.[11]

In another example, a study sought to increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables in a young-adult population. Participants who created "if-then" implementation intentions significantly increased reported fruit and vegetable intake by portions of 50% per day (over the course of one week), as compared to participants who made more global and less specific implementation intentions - reportedly consuming 31% more portions per day.[12]

Emotion regulation[edit]

In 2009 Schweiger Gallo, Keil, Gollwitzer, Rockstroh and McCulloch published another study that was conducted to address the effectiveness of implementation intentions in regulating emotional reactivity.[13]

The two studies required that disgust (in Study 1) and fear (in Study 2) eliciting stimuli were viewed by participants subject to three different self-regulation instructions:

  1. The first group were given the simple goal intention to not experience fright or disgust, and were told to believe "I will not get frightened."
  2. The second group were given the first goal intention, with an additional implementation intention, and were told to believe "And if I see a spider, I will stay calm and relaxed."
  3. The third group were given no-self-regulation as the control group and did not receive any instruction prior to the event.

Disgust was selected because it is almost universally considered to be a basic emotion in the applicable literature. Fear was selected because anxiety disorders, such as panic disorders or phobias are common, and they affect the life of many people. The participants reported on the intensity of the elicited emotions by rating experienced arousal. Only group two, the implementation intention participants, succeeded in reducing their disgust and fear reactions compared to the other two groups.

These results support the idea that self-regulation by using simple goal intentions can run into problems when immediate and strong emotional reactivity has to be down-regulated, whereas implementation intentions appear to be an effective tool for self-regulation.

Implementation intentions inhibit the automatic activation of stereotypical beliefs and prejudicial feelings.[14] In a more recent study, the use of implementation intentions was applied to interactions with new acquaintances as well as interracial interactions. The notion is that interactions with new acquaintances can be laden with anxiety and also decrease interest and desire for long-term contact. The study found that implementation intentions actually increased interest in sustained contact during anxiety provoking interactions and also led to closer interpersonal distance in anticipation of interracial interactions. The results also suggest that anxiety itself was not reduced by means of implementation intentions, but rather, implementation intentions shielded individuals from the negative effects of anxiety during social interactions.[15]


The earlier developments of the concept suggest that implementation intentions cause the mental representation of the anticipated situation to become highly activated and therefore easily accessible. The stronger the relationship between the cue or future situation and the predetermined behavior or response, the greater the success of initiating the desired goal-directed behavior. Since all components of the future behavior are predetermined (e.g. the when, where, and how), the association and relationship between said cue and behavior become automatic over time. That is, action initiation becomes immediate, efficient, and does not require conscious intent. In a more condensed explanation, implementation intentions automate action initiation.[16]

More contemporary developments of the concept look not only at the initiatory aspects of implementation intentions, but look also at the longer-term phenomenon of behavior maintenance as it related to implementation intentions. The research suggests that implementation intentions result not only in an association between cue and behavior, but it's the act of planning into the future that actually serves as the foundation for this phenomenon. An experiment conducted by Papies et al., investigated the rate of goal completion by means of both implementation intentions and also the learning of cue-behavior association. Initially, both approaches led to the same rate of goal completion, but a week later, only the effect of implementation intentions was maintained. This lends evidence to the notion that implementation intentions rely on more complex mechanisms than simple cue-behavior associations, as was believed to be the case in earlier research.[17]

Implementation Intentions and Goal Shielding[edit]

A large amount of research has been conducted on implementation intentions to better understand the questions relating to the initiation of goal striving.[18] Unfortunately, the prior study of shielding of ongoing goal striving has been neglected in that research.

One study regarding this question was reported by Achtziger, Gollwitzer and Sheeran .[19] It was shown in that study that implementation intentions can even assist people to shield goal striving from unwanted thoughts and feelings, such as cravings for junk food and from distracting thoughts. Two field experiments, concerning dieting (Study 1) and performance in sports (Study 2), have shown that there was a significant positive influence of implementation intentions on protecting ongoing goal striving. Participants who formed implementation intentions were more successful with long-term dieting, as well as concentration and performance in a tennis match. The focus on "If-then-plans" is the prevention of distracting thoughts and an efficient accomplishment of cognitive, motivational and emotional barriers of goal striving.

As these studies were run in "everyday" situations outside of an artificial laboratory, they possess a high external validity, and thus display the importance and meaningfulness of implementation intentions for everyday life.


As reported by Theodore A. Powers and colleagues, implementation intentions seem to have a negative effect on the performance in people who score high on socially prescribed perfectionism.[20]


  1. ^ Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54, 493-503.
  2. ^ Gollwitzer, P. M., & Brandstaetter, V. (1997). Implementation intentions and effective goal pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 186-199.
  3. ^ Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54, 493-503.
  4. ^ Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54, 493-503.
  5. ^ Locke, E. A., Latham, G. P., (1990). A theory of goal setting & task performance. In: Englewood Cliffs, NJ, US: Prentice-Hall, Inc. (1990). xviii, 413 pp.
  6. ^ Bandura A, & Dale H. (1981), Cultivating competence, self-efficacy, and intrinsic interest through proximal self-motivation, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 41(3), Sep 1981, 586-598.
  7. ^ Orbell, S., & Sheeran, P. (1998) Regulation of behaviour in pursuit of health goals: Commentary. Psychology and Health, 13, 753-758
  8. ^ Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54, 493-503.
  9. ^ Gollwitzer, P. M. (1990). Action phases and mind-sets. In E. T. Higgins & R. M. Sorrentino (Eds.), The handbook of motivation and cognition: Foundations of social behavior (Vol. 2, pp. 53-92). New York: Guilford Press.
  10. ^ Gollwitzer, P.M. & Oettingen, G. (1998), The emergence and implementation of health goals, Psychology & Health, 13, 687-715
  11. ^ Luszczynska, A., Sobczyk, A., Abraham, C.(2007), Health Psychology, 26, 507-512
  12. ^ Chapman, J., Armitage, C. J., Norman, P. (2009), Psychology & Health, 24, 317-332
  13. ^ Schweiger Gallo, I., Keil, A., McCulloch, K. C., Rockstroh, B., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2009). Strategic automation of emotion regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 11-31.
  14. ^ Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54, 493-503.
  15. ^ Stern, C. & West, T. V. (2014), Journal of Experimental Social Psychology,50,82-93
  16. ^ Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54, 493-503.
  17. ^ Papies, E. K., Aarts, H., de Vries, N. K. (2009), Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(5), 1148-1151
  18. ^ Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta-analysis of effects and processes. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 69-119
  19. ^ Achtziger, A., Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2008). Implementation intentions and shielding goal striving from unwanted thoughts and feelings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 381-393.
  20. ^ Powers, T. A., Koestner, R.,& Topciu, R. A. (2005). Implementation Intentions, Perfectionism, and Goal Progress: Perhaps the Road to Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 31 (7): 902–912, doi:10.1177/0146167204272311

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