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Thought contents and cognitive functioning in motivational versus volitional states of mind


Do people who are about to make a decision differ from people who are about to enact a decision just made with respect to (1) the contents of their spontaneous stream of thought, and (2) aspects of cognitive functioning reflective of short-term memory? Subjects either made a choice between, or were assigned to, two available test materials allegedly designed to measure creativity and differentially suited to promote an individual's full creative potential. Subjects were, however, interrupted prior to or shortly after making this choice: In Study 1, they were asked to report on the thoughts they experienced during the time period just before the interruption; in Study 2, subjects were interrupted either before or after making a choice and were asked to recall lists of words designed to test memory span. The results of Study 1 confirmed our assumption that predecisional versus postdecisional streams of spontaneous thought reflectmotivational versusvolitional states of mind. That is, predecisional thought was preoccupied with incentive values of goal options, expectancy of performance outcomes, and metamotivational directives, whereas postdecisional thought was concerned with questions of how to implement the pursued goal. In Study 2, subjects in a motivational state of mind exhibited a greater memory span than subjects in a volitional state of mind. Since, in a further study, performance on arithmetic tasks did not improve for subjects in a motivational as opposed to a volitional state of mind, the results of Study 2 are understood as a state-dependent increase in receptivity with respect to incoming information. In interpreting the present findings, the characteristic features of motivational and volitional states are explicated. Furthermore, it is suggested that the dominating research tradition focusing on motivational problems (i.e., expectancy-value models) and the abandoned research tradition concerned with volitional problems (i.e., formation and implementation of an intent) should be integrated into a functional unit.

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We would like to acknowledge the assistance of Martina Eckert and Thomas Grözinger, who ably served as experimenters. Jürgen Beckmann, Ronald F. Kinney, and Franz E. Weinert made helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

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Heckhausen, H., Gollwitzer, P.M. Thought contents and cognitive functioning in motivational versus volitional states of mind. Motiv Emot 11, 101–120 (1987).

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  • Social Psychology
  • Cognitive Functioning
  • Test Material
  • Performance Outcome
  • Functional Unit