Inducing spontaneous future thoughts in younger and older adults by priming future-oriented personal goals

  • Magda JordãoEmail author
  • Maria Salomé Pinho
  • Peggy L. St. Jacques
Original Article


In the past 15 years, the study of spontaneous thoughts (i.e., thoughts coming to mind without intention and effort) has received increased attention. Spontaneous future thoughts (SFTs) are particularly important (e.g., in planning), yet difficult to study with regard to age differences. Two main problems arise: (1) lab tasks including word-cues induce more past than future thoughts; (2) younger adults report more spontaneous thoughts than older adults. To improve the elicitation of SFTs, we developed a future-oriented goal-related priming procedure and analyzed the extension of the goal-related priming effect in SFTs to older adults, to examine whether age-related changes in personal goals compromise the elicitation of SFTs. We also controlled for methodological factors that could influence age groups differently (including demand, retrospection, meta-awareness and instruction bias). Twenty-seven younger and 27 older adults performed a low-demand vigilance task including word-cues and were periodically stopped to describe their thoughts. The vigilance task was divided into two parts and, between them, participants performed a future-oriented goal-related priming task. An additional group of 27 younger participants performed the same procedure with a control task based on word counting. We found a significant increase in SFTs after priming in both age groups, but not in the control group, indicating that the priming manipulation was effective. This result suggests that age-related changes in personal goals do not disrupt the relation between personal goals and SFT frequency. The similar pattern of overall spontaneous thought in both age groups is also discussed considering methodological factors.



This work was funded by a Ph.D. Grant (SFRH/BD/103338/2014) provided to the first author by the Foundation for Science and Technology, through the Human Capital Operating Programme, supported by the European Social Fund and national funds from the Portuguese Ministry for Science, Technology and Higher Education. The authors would like to thank Ana Carolina Artiaga, Elzbieta Campos, Lénia Amaral, Maria João Martins, Paulo Ramos and Rafaela Miranda, for their support in the data coding process, and Inês Castro Nunes for her support in the translation of the priming task.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Research involving human participants

All procedures carried out in this investigation with human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of institutional ethics committee and/or with the 1964 Helsinki Declaration.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all participants.

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (PDF 87 kb)
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Supplementary material 2 (PDF 133 kb)


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Research in Neuropsychology and Cognitive Behavioral Intervention, Faculty of Psychology and Educational SciencesUniversity of CoimbraCoimbraPortugal
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyUniversity of AlbertaEdmontonCanada

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