5 Goal Processing

In addition to helping us imagine our “possible selves,” autobiographical memory also helps us imagine which goals are (and aren’t) possible for ourselves. The goals of the working self are informed by our autobiographical knowledge base, as we infer from it what is realistic and attainable for ourselves (Conway & Loveday, 2014). In this way, goal processing involves using memory, as a person remembers and reflects upon the past. But, of course, goal processing is not only past-oriented—thinking conceptually about future goals also involves the imagination of projecting oneself into the future. Together, this involves the remembering-imagining system (RIS), named after the intrinsic relatedness between memory and imagination. The RIS is a window of accessibility to memories of recent past events and events that are upcoming in the near future. This window can prove critical to goal processing, as a person draws on autobiographical memories from the recent past and reflects on the trajectory that puts them on in the future (Conway & Loveday, 2014).

An easy metaphor Conway & Loveday (2014) use to understand the RIS is envisioning it as a fisheye lens. Items in the center, where the lens is focused, are things in the present and recent events. These things are clearer and more sharply defined in the mind. Moving out towards the sides, we have past experiences on one end and future anticipations or goals on the other. These things get blurrier the further out they are, and are less distinctive in the mind. Understanding the somewhat small scope of the RIS is critical to how we should be setting goals:  Making them too abstract or far-out makes it more difficult for a person to envision them, therefore making them seem not as attainable. This is one reason why larger and more long-term goals can actually be amotivational. Because of this, it is important that wise interventions consider the RIS and its role in goal setting and processing. Suggestions should be easily imaginable so that they are things which can be understood clearly and worked on quickly, therefore putting them closer to the in-focus center of the RIS.