We can’t read minds, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to guess what other people are thinking. Will the person in line ahead of us order the last everything bagel? Will that group of people occupy that spot at the bar you’ve been eyeing? We anticipate other people’s intentions and goals because we often assume everyone else wants exactly the same thing we do, even if they don’t. How often do we correctly guess what the person in line ahead of us will do?
This is a well-documented psychological phenomenon known as “goal projection.” Given little to no information about someone else, we will resort to the only knowledge we have access to – our own thoughts – and project this knowledge onto them. Projecting one’s goals can have vast consequences for our behavior, like how we act toward the person onto whom we are projecting. For example, we can become unnecessarily competitive with that person or even act more helpfully toward that person, depending on the situation.
But do we always project our goals onto others? Are we more likely to do it in certain situations and less likely in others? The answer is yes – researchers have found that the more committed you are to reaching your goal, the more likely you will project it onto others.
To find out, researchers randomly approached people at a multiplex movie theater in New York City preparing to buy tickets. These test subjects were asked to identify the movie they came to see and how committed they were to watching that movie. Then researchers pointed out the first person waiting in line to purchase a ticket at the multiplex and asked the test subject which movie they thought the individual was going to see.
The results indicated that the more committed a person was to the goal of watching the movie of his/her choice, the more he/she projected that same goal onto the other movie patron. So if you go into the theatre thinking that you really want to see Mad Max: Fury Road, you’ll assume everyone else wants to as well, and not, say, Jurassic World.
This effect even remained when researchers controlled how often test subjects attended the movies and the popularity of the movies playing at the multiplex – two variables that may increase the likelihood of making informed guesses rather than ones driven by goal projection.
We think people who are similar to us have the same goals
Researchers also pointed out that people are more prone to project onto someone else when they perceive that person to be similar to them.
In a different study examining commuters at Penn Station in New York City, researchers approached people waiting for the track number of their train to appear. Dozens of trains depart every hour during rush hours from Penn Station. Test subjects were first asked to indicate their destination and their level of goal commitment to get there.
At this point, experimenters singled out another commuter who was waiting in close to the subject and was easily observable. Test subjects were asked to indicate how similar they felt that person was to themselves and how likely it was that person was headed to their own destination.
Test subjects with strong goal commitment were more likely to believe the target person would go to the same destination the more that person was perceived to be similar. In other words, viewing someone as more similar to yourself might enhance your goal projection.
We think other people want what we want, until we get what we want
So when we really want something, we assume that people around us do too. But there are times when we don’t project our goals onto others. For example, if you were really focused on getting blueberries to make a pie, you might assume everyone else in the store might also be there to buy blueberries. But once you leave the store, with a box of blueberries in hand, you would no longer project that goal onto others. Now that you’ve got your blueberries, you stop assuming everyone else was after the same thing.
This is precisely what was found in a final study. Researchers identified when people are especially unlikely to project their goal – after they’ve attained it.
At a grocery store, researchers surveyed people before they had gone grocery shopping (yet to attain their goal) and people after they had finished grocery shopping (goal attained). Test subjects were asked to name the main item (eg, blueberries) they came to purchase, or had just purchased (depending on when they were approached), then indicated their goal commitment to purchase that item.
Then researchers chose another shopper who was just about to enter the supermarket at that very moment. Test subjects indicated how similar they felt that new shopper was to themselves, and the probability that the shopper would purchase the same item (blueberries) they purchased or were planning to purchase.
Results showed that people projected their goal onto the other shopper only when their own goal commitment was strong and they viewed other shopper as similar.
However, when people attained their goal (they had finished shopping), they no longer projected their goal. So we assume other people have the same goals we do, until we achieve those goals ourselves.
Such research could be used to explain why there is so much tension within crowds even before doors open on Black Friday and why people might offer unwarranted and unsolicited advice to others (for instance, offering a tip on how to get to Doctor A’s office when the person actually wants to go to Doctor B).
When there is no other way to make informed guesses about other people’s intentions and goals, people have no choice but to rely on their own internal states – their own intentions and goals – and project them onto others.