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The Selfish Goal: Autonomously operating motivational structures as the proximate cause of human judgment and behavior

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 April 2014

Julie Y. Huang
Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON M5S 3E6, Canada and College of Business, State University of New York at Stony Brook, Stony Brook, NY 11794.
John A. Bargh
Department of Psychology, Yale University New Haven, CT 06520.


We propose the Selfish Goal model, which holds that a person's behavior is driven by psychological processes called goals that guide his or her behavior, at times in contradictory directions. Goals can operate both consciously and unconsciously, and when activated they can trigger downstream effects on a person's information processing and behavioral possibilities that promote only the attainment of goal end-states (and not necessarily the overall interests of the individual). Hence, goals influence a person as if the goals themselves were selfish and interested only in their own completion. We argue that there is an evolutionary basis to believe that conscious goals evolved from unconscious and selfish forms of pursuit. This theoretical framework predicts the existence of unconscious goal processes capable of guiding behavior in the absence of conscious awareness and control (the automaticity principle), the ability of the most motivating or active goal to constrain a person's information processing and behavior toward successful completion of that goal (the reconfiguration principle), structural similarities between conscious and unconscious goal pursuit (the similarity principle), and goal influences that produce apparent inconsistencies or counterintuitive behaviors in a person's behavior extended over time (the inconsistency principle). Thus, we argue that a person's behaviors are indirectly selected at the goal level but expressed (and comprehended) at the individual level.

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