The other day, my sandal broke and I put on sports shoes and walked through the park, and I found myself on a gravel running track in sports gear and the next thing I knew, I was going for a run. For the first time in years. Afterwards, I was sweaty and pleased. I thought, oh, I’m a runner now. I’m going to be like those running, fit women! But I got my sandal fixed and two weeks passed without me running again. Why?
Of course, I’d thought about running before that, but I think we all consider doing what we see other people doing. Maybe because mirror neurons? We imagine what it would be like to ride motorbikes, drive ambulances to emergencies, walk hand in hand with someone, and we imagine doing stuff we see often – such as running – more than other stuff. And everyone in the world knows about losing weight and getting fit
If I had really come up with the goal of losing weight and getting fit though, why would I have chosen to run? Why not skip or side shuffle? Those other actions never crossed my mind. The action that came to me automatically was the one I’d seen other people do, and above all, other women my age, in that sort of location, in that sort of outfit. The goal of running, the conscious intent to run came after the action of running. The pieces were in place to construct a goal-directed narrative: I’d considered running in a general and idle way, I felt that I should do more exercise and get fit [therefore] I went running, and I was pleased afterwards. It was an easy story to construct, one about goals and action, but it wasn’t true.
I think the key element was the broken sandal and the sports shoes. I’m not sure why, because I normally wear comfortable street shoes which would be perfectly adequate for running. I could easily have run in them, except that I didn’t, which makes me wonder about affordances (here is a pdf file of Chemero’s paper on affordances if you’re interested). I’d walked down that path scores of times in street shoes and comfortable outfits. Why did I need sports shoes to run?
Now I’ve rejected the goal narrative, I go running (walking/running/hobbling anyway) regularly. I turn up to linear parks and swimming pools in appropriately sporty outfits and see what happens. What happens is that I do exercise. It’s psychologically easy. Whereas if I try to think in terms of goals of exercise and losing weight and planning it never really works in any kind of sustainable way. It’s too early to say for sure, but so far it seems that the key to doing exercise, for me at least, is to deliberately avoid the goal of exercising.
This experience has made me wonder if our narratives of goal-directed action are ever real, or if they’re constructed post hoc. Maybe only externally imposed goals make sense, such as goals at work, or goals related to other people. Maybe that’s why people have personal trainers and running buddies. Tomasello, Carpenter and Beyne argued that:
the crucial difference between human cognition and that of other species is the ability to participate with others in collaborative activities with shared goals and intentions: shared intentionality.
If shared goals are such a crucial evolutionary change, then maybe goals are for coordination with others. They’re a social event. Maybe we don’t need goals for our own private actions.