Posted 04.14.2017 | by AMRA

People tend to be happiest when their career and relationship goals align with their motivations. The problem is that people often have relatively little awareness of their unconscious motives. We can infer the existence of unconscious motives based on how a person behaves, but people are rarely able to recognize or describe these motives.

Unconcious motives are formed early in life and tend to be poorly integrated with higher mental processes. Prior research suggests, however, that people who are highly aware of their internal body sensations are also more likely to be aware of their unconscious motives. Could then a mindfulness exercise that increases body awareness also increase awareness of unconscious motives?

Strick & Papies [Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin] tested this possibility by first assessing people’s unconscious motives, and then having them select and rate a set of goals after engaging in either a mindfulness practice called the body scan or a control activity.

Sixty college students (mean age = 22; 75% female) attended a series of three experimental sessions. In the first session, participants made up stories in response to pictures depicting social situations. The content of their stories was then rated by the researchers for the presence of implicit wishes for affiliation (the wish to pursue and maintain relationships) and power (the wish to control and influence others). The participants also rated their conscious desires for affiliation and power using a self-report measure.

In the second session, participants were randomly assigned to either a body scan or control activity. Body scan participants listened to a brief (12-14 minutes) digitally recorded guided body scan in which they were instructed to mindfully attend to body sensations. Control participants read magazines for the same length of time. Participants were then asked to imagine starting a new job and select the goals they would like to pursue from a list of affiliation (e.g., “I would like to work in a team”) and power (e.g., “I would want to act self-confident”) goals. Participants then rated the selected goals for how true they were for them.

Following this, participants were asked to choose from another list of affiliation and power goals, but this time to vividly imagine how pursuing those goals might make them feel before selecting and rating them. Finally participants rated how aware they were of their bodily sensations. Two months later, participants returned for a third session in which those previously assigned to do the body scan now read magazines, and vice versa. During this third session, participants selected and rated their goals in a new scenario involving imagining beginning to attend a new school.

The body scan effectively increased participants’ ratings of bodily awareness. Unconscious affiliation motives significantly predicted participants’ goal selections and ratings after the body scan, but not after reading magazines. In other words, unconscious affiliation motives led to selecting more affiliation goals, but only after the body scan manipulation. On the other hand, when the participants were later asked to vividly imagine their selections, the relationship between their unconscious motives and their goal selections disappeared.

In contrast to affiliation motives, unconscious power motives did not affect power goal selection or ratings. Measures of unconscious and conscious motivation did not correlate with each other. Conscious affiliation motives were a better predictor of goal selection in the control condition than in the body scan condition, whereas unconscious affiliation motives were a better predictor of goal selection in the body scan condition than in the control condition.

In summary, the findings show that the body scan enhances the influence of unconscious affiliation motives on goal selection, thereby better aligning goals with unconscious motives. However, this effect is either fleeting or easily counteracted because it disappeared when the participants vividly imagined pursuing their goals.

The research adds to our knowledge of whether and under what circumstances a mindfulness practice may increase access to unconscious mental processes. It also suggests a role for mindfulness in improving decision making around personal goals. The study is limited by the brevity of its mindfulness task and the fact that it was offered as a stand-alone task without accompanying mindfulness education.


Strick, M., & Papies, E. K. (2017). A brief mindfulness exercise promotes the correspondence between the implicit affiliation motive and goal setting. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

[Link to abstract]