Typically, human behavior is explained as the result of a battle between deliberate efforts to achieve a certain goal and external factors that subconsciously drive our behavior away from that goal. Professor in cognitive psychology Bernhard Hommel proposes an alternative theory about the relation between goal setting and behavior and received an ERC grant of 2,5 million euro to experimentally explore this theory.

Maybe people are not merely actors who, while trying to achieve a certain goal, are distracted by external factors that secretly drive their behavior instead. What if we view people as smart planners, deliberately switching between maintaining focus on their goals and being guided by circumstances? Would that be a better model to understand human behavior?

That is the overarching question Hommel will try to answer in the next five years. He will do so in an approach that spans different levels of understanding, from the molecular processes in the brain all the way up to the interpersonal interactions that are shaped by society. Hommel: ‘It is a high risk, high gain approach. But that is exactly the goal of ERC-funded research. This grant allows me to work in a team of ten scientists to look at the same question on these conceptually distinct levels.’

Because Hommel is interested in the force organizing basic processes like perception, attention and response selection, he will study the network connecting different areas in the brain. For this he has access to a high resolution 7 Tesla fMRI scanner, in which subjects will perform tasks that require either goal- oriented or stimulus-driven behavior, like the Stroop task. Hommel is especially interested in the frontal and striatal dopaminergic networks, because they embody staying focused and flexibly switching respectively. He will also have a close look at the production of dopamine, in the substantia nigra and ventral tegmental areas, as this represents the source of this organization.

On another level, the group will study whether people have control over the brain state they are in. ‘Some people might inherently be better at staying focused on their goal, while others are more flexible in dealing with external circumstances,’ Hommel remarks. ‘But I also think people have control over how they balance intrinsic and external influence on their behavior.’ The psychologist will test this hypothesis by training subjects in two distinct types of meditation. One requires people to stay focused on one thought, fighting off intruding thoughts, the other type of meditation requires the opposite, allowing all thoughts and feelings to be present. Hommel will measure how the different types of training influence the behavior of his subjects.

Artificial mini-culture
Finally, cultural factors also influence people, think for example of how perseverance is regarded as a virtue in Calvinistic societies, whereas going with the flow is more appreciated in other cultures. Hommel will imitate the influence of a societal environment on the extent to which people’s behavior is determined by their goals. He will do so by having participants acquire an artificially created mini-culture – a coherent set of rules that expresses particular norms and values. Subsequently, he will test whether this leads to the same systematic changes in perception, attention, and decision-making that natural religions have been found to produce.

Underlying the research project is Hommel’s concern with the discourse about “free will” that currently dominates psychology. ‘We often presume external stimuli take us off course, undermine our “free will”. But I don’t see a reason to believe stimulus-driven behavior to not be intentional. It can be really smart to adapt to circumstances, both in an ancestral and the current setting. Think about someone chasing a boar and adjusting this behavior when he notices a lion that is about to chase him, or someone nowadays pursuing a career as a singer, but going along with an alternative career opportunity that presents itself instead, going with the ‘distractions’ might be for the better in both scenario’s.’

Text: Marieke Buijs