Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Purpose in Goal Pursuit Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Prosocial Behavior Purpose & Wealth Purpose & Well-Being Purpose Across the Lifespan

NPP Network Members Convene to Discuss Multiple Paths to Purpose

By Alex Shaw, Oren Shapira

Last week the first annual New Paths to Purpose conference was held at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. It was exciting to bring together people from so many institutions and academic backgrounds; professors from business, social psychology, developmental psychology, economics, and public policy were all present at the conference. This conference marks one of the first times that so many researchers have met to seriously discuss the study of purpose in behavioral science, and if you measure the success of a conference by the extent to which it can foster a discussion of intellectually stimuliating new ideas, then the New Paths to Purpose conference was certainly a success. 

Prof. David Yeager: © Jasmine Kwong, 2014

Purpose as a Practical Tool to Help Teenagers Achieve and Thrive

The conference began with two interesting presentations about practical tools to help teenagers advance important life goals connected to purpose. Prof David Yeager from the University of Texas at Austin kicked off the conference by presenting a set of studies (some of which we covered here) that investigated how purpose can be used as a powerful tool to motivate students to learn. His research team found that students, particularly underperforming students, do better in school when they are made to appreciate and focus on the ways in which their learning can help them to meaningfully contribute to the world and fulfill a prosocial purpose (for example, that learning math can help them become environmental engineers who protect the environment).

Chris Bryan from UCSD then presented a related project aimed at stemming the rising tide of childhood obesity by providing teenagers with a compelling purpose for the adoption of healthy eating habits—specifically, by helping teenagers to think about healthy eating as a way to assert their independence and “stand up to” the manipulative food industry (for more information on this project, see Bryan’s interview here). In doing this psychological jiujitsu, Dr. Bryan’s research hopes to turn teenage rebellion from a roadblock into an asset. He finds that teenagers are indeed more likely to endorse healthy eating and to eat more healthy foods when they are presented with an intervention that encourages them to rebel against the manipulative influence of the food industry.

Purpose in Goal Pursuit: How Do We Meet Important Goals and Who Do We Learn From When Pursuing Them? 

During the next series of presentations the conference shifted to a focus on goals. Goals provide signposts along the path to purpose; they let us feel a sense of achievement and are also aspirational landmarks that help us strive to always be better. However, we often fail to achieve at least some of our goals. Prof. Claire Tsai from the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management, who is working with Prof. Dillip Soman from the same institution, presented research that focused on one hindrance to goal pursuit—that we often get “stuck in the middle” on tasks. We are often excited to start pursuing a goal (for example, diet until reaching a target weight), but this initial excitement soon fades, sometimes compromising our ability to successfully achieve the goal. Their research team is developing a mobile app aimed at helping people reach their goals by instilling in them an implementation mindset—a practical focus on the means required to complete one’s goals (for more information, see Prof. Soman’s interview here). In addition to not finishing the goals we set, we sometimes don’t do the best job prioritizing our goals. Specifically, we often focus on goals that are not the most important to us, for example, we might reply to non-urgent emails when we need to work on an important report. Ben Converse from the University of Virginia Frank Baten School of Leadership and Public Policy presented some interesting research that documents this conflict, showing that people do often spend more time on the goals they claim are less important to them. Prof. Converse suggested that one characteristic that helps people to navigate this conflict is an ability to tolerate multitasking. He also presented and discussed possible future interventions that could help people to pursue the goals that are important to them (for more information on this project, see Prof. Converse’s interview here). 

Beyond motivating oneself to pursue their goals, deciding who to emulate when pursuing one’s goals is an important part of goal pursuit and purpose. David Kalkstein presented research on this question that he is doing in collaboration with Prof. Yaacov Trope from New York University. Their research examines who and what people emulate, comparing emulation of others who are psychologically close (a member of one’s group) or distant (not a member of one’s group). Their results suggest that people are more likely to copy abstract principles (e.g., aspiring to be a good time manager) from those who are more psychologically distant and more concrete principles (e.g., using a prioritized task list) from those who are more psychologically close.

Overcoming Road Blocks to Purpose: Transcending the Negative Impacts of Unhealthy Eating, Negative Stereotypes, and Pain

The penultimate session focused on different ways that people can be derailed from their purpose and research aimed at helping people to avoid these pitfalls. The projects in this session are still in the planning phase, which gave the attendees an opportunity to contribute to the design of these nascent research endeavors. The first talk in this session was by Prof. Hal Hershfield from New York University Stern School of Business. Prof. Hershfield presented research designed to help people avoid unhealthy eating by using realistic body silhouettes to show participants how their healthy or unhealthy eating habits can influence their body shape (for more information on this project, see Prof Hershfield’s interview here). Next, we heard from Jenessa Shapiro from UCLA who is designing an intervention to help minority students cope with others’ negative stereotypes about them. She has designed an authenticity intervention—an intervention that celebrates each students’ unique cultural background. This intervention will hopefully attenuate or even eliminate the negative influence of other people’s stereotyped expectations of minority students, and increase these students’ feelings of purpose. Prof. Shapiro hopes that the positive results of this intervention will have downstream effects such as increases in well-being, satisfaction with the university, grades, and feelings of academic fit/belonging.

Next we heard from Anuj Shah from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business who is hoping to alleviate one very significant barrier to purpose—the experience of chronic pain. It is difficult to focus on important projects and goals related to purpose when one is distracted by chronic aches and pains. Prof. Shah’s team has carefully chosen a research population for which this concern is an inseparable part of life: flower stringers in India, who experience chronic pain as part of their job. The research team intends to use a relatively simple intervention (the pain reliever ibuprofen) to alleviate the participants’ pain and then examine if they are better at their jobs and have more purpose after this intervention (for more information on this project, see Prof Shah’s interview here).We hope that these innovative new interventions will help attenuate the negative impact of unhealthy eating, negative stereotypes, and pain on people’s lives, and imbue in them a greater sense of purpose. 

Purpose and Prosociality: How Purpose Can Help Make the World a Better Place

Prof. Eugene Caruso: © Jasmine Kwong, 2014

The final session focused on two projects designed to encourage people to pursue their prosocial purpose. Prof. David Rand from Yale University presented some interesting new research that removes one potential roadblock on the path to prosocial purpose—what has been called “crowding out” of prosocial intentions. Specifically, it is possible to make people much more prosocial by telling them they will be punished if they are not prosocial (e.g., if you punish people for defecting in an economic game they will cooperate more). Yet once the threat of punishment is removed people become even less prosocial than they would have been had no punishment been introduced (e.g., in a different economic game they will be even more selfish than they would be at baseline). Prof. Rand and his team are exploring ways that they can encourage prosociality without engendering this negative backlash. They have found that introducing a context in which cooperation is more likely makes people more likely to cooperate on the cooperative task (somewhat unsurprisingly), and also makes them more likely to cooperate in new contexts that are not generally cooperative.

In the final presentation, Elizabeth Dunn from the University of British Columbia explored research-informed ways to flip the philanthropy switch—to make people more likely to donate their wealth to help others. In one study, Dunn and colleagues found evidence that charitable messages focusing on agency—the pursuit of personal goals—were more effective among wealthier individuals, whereas charitable messages focusing on communion—emphasizing common goals with others—were more effective among less wealthy individuals (for more on this see Prof. Dunn’s interview here).


The conference was buzzing with discussions of interesting new projects, not only in the conference sessions but also during breaks between sessions. The conference was so full of ideas that we were only able to recapitulate a few of them above. We would like to thank George Wu, Ayelet Fishbach, Chris Hsee, and Eugene Caruso of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business for masterfully moderating the discussions during each session, and of course the Templeton Foundation for making this conference possible. We would also like to thank Heather Caruso and Jasmine Kwong for organizing the conference and making it run as smoothly as it did. 

One of the most delightful parts of the conference was seeing the way that the seemingly disparate projects connected to each other. For example, attendees suggested psychological distance could be a useful tool for helping people navigate their conflicts between urgent and important goals, and provided different ways that the proposed authenticity manipulation could be useful for encouraging prosociality. Although purpose is not something that is normally studied directly in psychology, the common goal of helping people achieve their purpose provided a unifying thread to all of the fascinating new research projects. We hope these researchers continue to probe the depths of this important topic, and that next year’s conference is packed with even more amazing research ideas! 

© Olivia Boyd, 2014

Prof. Hal Hershfield: © Olivia Boyd, 2014


To see all conference photos: click here.

Profs. Josh Klayman & Jenessa Shapiro: © Olivia Boyd, 2014

Prof. Anuj Shah: © Olivia Boyd, 2014


© Olivia Boyd, 2014

© Olivia Boyd, 2014

© Jasmine Kwong, 2014



© Jasmine Kwong, 2014

© Jasmine Kwong, 2014

© Jasmine Kwong, 2014

Alex Shaw is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.
Oren Shapira is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Purpose in Goal Pursuit Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Prosocial Behavior Purpose & Wealth Purpose & Well-Being Purpose Across the Lifespan

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