Motivation and Cognitive Science Laboratory

Research Overview

The Motivation and Cognitive Science Laboratory is dedicated to understanding how what people want (motivation) and how they think (cognition) interact to shape prediction, evaluation, and behavior. Research ongoing in the lab has pursued three overlapping research questions:

  • How do people think about objects and events that are removed from the immediate here and now?
  • When and why do some people succeed whereas others fail at self-control?
  • How do we motivate change at the level of individuals, groups, and social institutions?

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When we think about an object that is in our immediate environment, we can use our senses to provide information about that object. But we also have the capacity to think about, evaluate, and orient ourselves to objects and events that occur beyond our immediate senses (i.e., those that are psychologically distant). For example, people appear equally adept at thinking about events that will occur later today (psychologically near) vs. a year from now (psychologically distant). What we are interested in how people are able to engage in this sort of prospection, an ability that some have suggested in a uniquely human capacity (Suddendorf & Corvallis, 2008).

The guiding theoretical framework in our lab to understand this issue is construal level theory (CLT; Liberman & Trope, 2008; Liberman et al., 2007; Trope & Liberman, 2003; 2010). Given that we often lack reliable information on the detailed specifics of more distant events, we rely on more abstract, categorical knowledge that captures the gist or essence of those events. In CLT terms, we refer to this process as high-level construal. As events become closer, we are able to attend to and incorporate secondary details that distinguish those particular events as unique and idiosyncratic. We refer to this latter process as low-level construal. Whereas we might think of a beach vacation in the distant future as relaxing under the warmth of the sun, we are more likely to think of a beach vacation tomorrow as sitting in this chair in that particular spot wearing these clothes. High-level construal allows us to transcend the present to consider remote content, whereas low-level construal immerses us into the particulars of the here-and-now.

Research in the lab examines how people use high-level and low-level construal to consider psychologically distant vs. near events, and the implications of such construal processes for motivation, prediction, evaluation, decision, and behavior.

    Representative Publications:
  • Eyal, T., Hoover, G. M., Fujita, K., & Nussbaum, S. (2011). The effect of distance-dependent construals on schema-driven impression formation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 278-281.
  • Fujita, K., Eyal, T., Chaiken, S., Trope, Y., & Liberman, N. (2008). Influencing attitudes toward near and distant objects. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 562-572.
  • Fukukura, J., Ferguson, M. J., & Fujita, K. (2013). Psychological distance can improve decision-making under information overload. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142, 658-665.
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Self-control dilemmas occur when people are presented with a choice between a smaller yet immediate vs. larger yet more remote reward (e.g., Ainslie, 1975; Fujita, 2011; Mischel et al., 1989; Rachlin, 2000). Motivationally, participants are presented with a dual-motive conflict, in which they want both the smaller-immediate and larger-remote rewards but must choose one over the other (Fujita, 2011). Self-control entails prioritizing the larger-remote over smaller-immediate rewards. A dieter, for example, presented with cake face a self-control conflict between immediate hedonic enjoyment of eating the cake vs. the more distant rewards of losing weight. Self-control conflicts are believed to be at the heart of many of society’s most pressing problems, including obesity, substance abuse, and poor financial decision-making.

Research in the lab explore the various cognitive and motivational factors that lead people to prioritize remote over immediate rewards. Chief among these factors is construal level. Research in our lab demonstrates that engaging in high-level rather than low-level construal promotes self-control (for reviews, see Fujita, 2008; Fujita & Carnevale, 2012). More recent work in our lab has begun to examine people’s knowledge and awareness that high-level construal can promote self-control, and the strategic engagement of high-level vs. low-level construal.

    Representative Publications:
  • Fujita, K., Trope, Y., Liberman, N., & Levin-Sagi, M. (2006). Construal levels and self-control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 351-367.
  • Fujita, K. (2008). Seeing the forest beyond the trees: A construal-level approach to self-control. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2, 1475-1496.
  • Fujita, K., & Carnevale, J. J. (2012). Transcending temptation through abstraction: The role of construal level in self-control. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21, 248-252.

For many, self-control entails the exertion of willpower – the inhibition of impulses when presented with immediate temptations. The prototypical self-control dilemma entails a battle between a proverbial angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Research suggests, however, that attempting to overcome temptation with willpower alone may prove futile as inhibition is a highly fallible strategy (e.g., Muraven & Baumeister, 2000; Wegner, 2009). Inhibition is a reactive self-control strategy, engaged after a temptation impulse is already activated and must be restrained. Our lab examines other strategies people use that are more proactively engaged in anticipation of potential conflicts. For example, dieters may walk the long-way home to avoid the temptation of walking in front of their favorite bakery (e.g., Ainslie, 1975, Trope & Liberman, 2000; Thaler & Shefrin, 1981). Our lab investigates these alternative "offense" rather than "defense" strategies, and explore under what conditions they are more likely to be implemented.

    Representative Publications:
  • Fujita, K., & Roberts, J. C. (2010). Promoting prospective self-control through abstraction. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 1049-1054.
  • Fujita, K. (2011). On conceptualizing self-control as more than the effortful inhibition of impulses. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15, 352-366.
  • Mann, T., de Ridder, D. T. D., & Fujita, K. (2013). Social psychological approaches to self-regulation: Processes of goal setting and goal striving. Health Psychology, 32, 487-489.
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Psychology of Change

One of the most vexing issues for psychologists to understand is why people are resistant to change, even when they are aware of the problems produced by the status quo. For example, why don’t people change their health behavior (i.e., quit smoking, eat more healthily) when they learn that their current behavior is promoting negative health outcomes? Why do groups continue to engage in actions that damage their reputations and effectiveness? Why are institutions so slow to respond to vexing problems that their policies and rules create? Research suggests that people, the groups they belong to, and the institutions within which they operate would rather justify current negative situations rather than attempt to bring about positive change. Our lab suggests that people are indeed motivated to change themselves, their groups, and their institutions for the better, but that such motivation is often thwarted by short-term concerns about maintaining positive self-views. Change requires accepting that fact that one is doing something negative, which can be difficult for people to do. Our lab examines those factors that allow one to set aside their short-term defensive concerns in favor of long-term change. Critically, research in the lab suggests that many of the same factors that promote change among individuals may equally apply to groups and social institutions, and vice-versa. These factors include perceptions of the inherent changeability of the status quo and construal level. Research in the lab has applied these insights to understanding how to motivate health behavior change, promote dissent within groups, and enhance efforts to promote social reform and justice.

    Representative Publications:
  • Mann, T., de Ridder, D. T. D., & Fujita, K. (2013). Social psychological approaches to self-regulation: Processes of goal setting and goal striving. Health Psychology, 32, 487-489.
  • Packer, D. J., Fujita, K., & Herman, S. (2013). A goal conflict approach to understanding when conscientious people dissent. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49, 927-932.
  • Johnson, I. R., & Fujita, K. (2012). Using perceptions of changeability to promote system-change motives over system-justification motives in information search. Psychological Science, 23, 133-140.

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