The Neuroscience of Goals and Behavior Change

Consult Psychol J. 2018 Mar;70(1):28-44. doi: 10.1037/cpb0000094.


The ways that people set, pursue, and eventually succeed or fail in accomplishing their goals are central issues for consulting psychology. Goals and behavior change have long been the subject of empirical investigation in psychology, and have been adopted with enthusiasm by the cognitive and social neurosciences in the last few decades. Though relatively new, neuroscientific discoveries have substantially furthered the scientific understanding of goals and behavior change. This article reviews the emerging brain science on goals and behavior change, with particular emphasis on its relevance to consulting psychology. I begin by articulating a framework that parses behavior change into two dimensions, one motivational (the will) and the other cognitive (the way). A notable feature of complex behaviors is that they typically require both. Accordingly, I review neuroscience studies on cognitive factors, such as executive function, and motivational factors, such as reward learning and self-relevance, that contribute to goal attainment. Each section concludes with a summary of the practical lessons learned from neuroscience that are relevant to consulting psychology.

Keywords: Behavior change; Goal Striving; Habit formation; Motivation; Neuroplasticity.