When the goal gets in the way: The interaction of goal specificity and task difficulty

Jean E. Pretz, Corinne Zimmerman

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal Articlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


In three experiments we tested hypotheses derived from the goal specificity literature using a real-world physics task. In the balance-scale paradigm participants predict the state of the apparatus based on a configuration of weights at various distances from the fulcrum. Non-specific goals (NSG) have been shown to encourage hypothesis testing, which facilitates rule discovery, whereas specific goals (SG) do not. We showed that this goal specificity effect depends on task difficulty. The NSGstrategy led to rule induction among some participants. Among non-discoverers, SG participants were faster and more accurate on difficult problems than NSG participants. The use of misleading exemplars (scale configurations that obscured the rule governingoutcomes) led to fixation on inappropriate hypotheses for NSG but not SG participants. When more diagnostic learning exemplars were used, NSG non- discoverers still performed worse than SG participants on difficult problems. SG participants also outperformed NSG participants on a post-test of difficult problems. These findings qualify the generality of goal specificity effects. ©2009 Psychology Press.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)405-430
Number of pages26
JournalThinking and Reasoning
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • Dual-process theory
  • Goal specificity
  • Implicit processing
  • Problem solving
  • Task difficulty


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