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

Thinking and Reasoning 15 (4):405-430 (2011)
Abstract
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 NSG strategy 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 governing outcomes) 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
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