By Published On: January 20th, 2021Categories: Financial Trading, Denis, Financial Wellbeing

Financial Wellbeing and Implementation Intentions

One of the key drivers of financial wellbeing is an ability to do the right thing at the right time. This sounds extremely obvious – but it’s also extremely difficult to do. How many times have we lost money by simply forgetting to do what we intended to do – what we knew we had to do? We either miss opportunities, or get penalized for not paying some bill or tax on time, or face large repair costs because we didn’t keep our equipment properly serviced, etc. etc. For financial traders, there’s a whole calendar of events and data releases that must be attended to by the day, the week and the month. There’s so much information that it’s all too easy to just tune out – and our unconscious minds are geniuses at finding excellent ways for us to do just that. So, wouldn’t it be great if we could find some way to get our unconscious minds and our conscious intentions working together for a change?

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Professor Peter Gollwitzer, working at the Max Planck Institute for Psychological Research in Munich, Germany, developed a useful technique which has since been adopted in many healthcare and other contexts. It’s a technique for helping to carry out difficult intentions and desired behaviour. Gollwitzer called his technique Implementation Intentions. The technique involves formulating a clear intention and then making a strict plan determining when, where, and how you will carry out that intention. The key to the technique is making conscious use of the unconscious ways that our environment cues our behaviour. If we can find a way to get our environment to prompt the behaviour we desire without us even thinking of it, then we won’t have the trouble of trying to remember to do it. It would also cut down on the chances that we will find some “good” excuse not to do it.

One of the first experiments Gollwitzer carried out was helping students to tell their fathers that they loved him. Half of the students made a strong commitment to do so with the words “I will tell my father I love him during the Christmas holidays.” But, the other half were asked to say exactly where and when they would tell him, such as “I will tell my father I love him when he meets me at the train and we get into the car.” The results showed that those who named the time and place where they intended to carry out the action were much more successful than those who didn’t. The environment of the train station and the car pushed the behaviour forward in the students’ minds without them having to think about it.

Professor John Barge, of Yale University, gives an explanation from cognitive science as to why Implementation Intentions work. He writes,

Brain imaging studies have shown how these implementation intentions work. Basically, when an implementation intention is formed, control over behavior shifts from one brain region to another. When you have the goal and desire to do something, a region associated with self-initiated actions, part of what is known as the Brodmann area, becomes active. This would be the case for a goal such as “I want to go to the store today to pick up milk and something for dinner.” But when implementation intentions are formed, such as “When I finish typing up this report, I will get up from my desk and head out to the store,” a different part of that region becomes active, the part that is associated with environmentally driven behavior. So the brain scanning studies have shown that intentions in general are controlled by internal thought (remembering to do something you want to do) but implementation intentions—which are more reliable and effective—shift the control of behavior from your self-generated internal thoughts to a stimulus from the outside environment, so that when X happens, you will do Y, without having to remember or stop and think about it at the time. It will happen before you know it. (1)

Since the 1990s, the Implementation Intentions technique has been widely tested and found to be effective. So much so that it is being used to help patients to remember to take their medicines on time, health insurers have used the technique to help clients to make doctors’ appointments for check-ups and procedures.  Political parties have also been using the technique to improve their voter turn-out. Professor Gollwitzer and his students have since extended the technique so that it’s not only about doing something, but also not doing something. The team found that volunteers who recited the statement, “If I am tempted to buy something, then I will tell myself I will save my money for important investments!” where much less likely to succumb to sales techniques practiced on them by experienced salespersons than volunteers who did not make such a statement. This is an interesting development, as part of the environmental trigger is actually internal to the subject, i.e. the temptation. So the temptation itself has now been turned into a driver for not buying the tempting item. A Dutch team tested this advance on two hundred unsuccessful dieters over a period of six months. Half of the dieters made general statements like “I intend to lose four kilos over the next six months.” The other half where helped to compose Implementation Intention statements such as “The next time I feel like buying a takeaway for dinner, I’ll cook dinner instead,” or “When I’m tempted to eat some chocolate, I’ll drink some herbal tea.” The study found that those who had made Implementation Intention statements were much more successful in losing weight than those who had made general statements of intent. Gollwitzer finds that this technique will work if you make the statement in your own head, but works better if you state the intention aloud to another person.

Professor Gollwitzer gives an interesting insight into one of the key reasons this process works,

Once people start to lay down how they intend to achieve a chosen goal or goal intention, their general cognitive orientation changes in a direction that facilitates goal achievement. In a number of experimental studies, the following distinct features of the cognitive orientation associated with planning were discovered. First, processing of information that relates to the implementation of the chosen goal is very effective. This should definitely be instrumental in initiating goal directed behaviours. Secondly, an overestimation of the desirability of the chosen goal, as well as an illusory positive view of its feasibility, can be observed. Thirdly, the implemental mind-set is characterized by a certain closed mindedness with respect to irrelevant information. The implemental mind-set forms a stark contrast to the cognitive orientation associated with deliberating on one’s wishes and desires in an attempt to set priorities. People who are still deliberating are found to be open-minded and they show an impartial and objective analysis of information that relates to the feasibility and desirability of wishes and desires. (2)

In other words, there’s a certain shutting out of alternatives. There’s a building of a wall around the intention and its environmental triggers – be they external or internal. In a sense, a module is being created that will perform a certain function, and that module will be cut off from any influence that might inhibit its effectiveness. In the next blog post we will look more deeply into this modularity of mind and how it might help us. For the moment, it’s clear that if we could formulate a set of intentions that we believe would help our financial wellbeing, and then move on to generate Implementation Intention statements to match these intentions, we would likely achieve our ambitions much more easily and pleasurably.

The second part of this series on Implementation Intentions can be read here,


  1. Bargh, John (2017). Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do. William Heinemann.

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