Toward an increased understanding of impulsive behavior and behavioral reluctance from a goal-directed perspective: The cases of impulsive eating and environmental behavior
People often engage in behavior that is not in their best interest. For instance, they become aggressive even when they risk a high cost (e.g., retaliation or ruining a relationship) and they engage in unhealthy behaviors such as smoking. Traditional theories have attributed these so-called suboptimal behaviors to a stimulus-driven process in which a stimulus activates a response based on the person’s prior learning history or innate wiring. This response can be regulated by a goal-directed process, which compares the values and likelihoods of the outcomes of different action options, but only when the person has ample opportunity to engage in this process. We propose an alternative theory in which goal-directed processes do not merely play a regulatory role, but are also at the heart of the emotional and unhealthy behaviors themselves. This deviates from the tenacious view that emotions and unhealthy behaviors are irrational. The project challenges the traditional theory by testing whether seemingly stimulus-driven behavior might be due to goal-directed processes after all. We do so by using state-of-the-art behavioral (reaction time) and neuroscientific (TMS/MEP) methods. Support for the alternative theory has important implications for behavior change in clinical practice and society.