You Cannot Have Your Cake and Eat It, too: How Induced Goal Conflicts Affect Complex Problem Solving

Christine Blech*, Joachim Funke
Psychologisches Institut, Universitat Heidelberg, Hauptstraße 47-51, D-69117 Heidelberg, Germany.

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© 2009 Blech and Funke.

open-access license: This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License (CC-BY 4.0), a copy of which is available at: ( This license permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

* Address correspondence to this author at the Psychologisches Institut, Universitat Heidelberg, Hauptstraße 47-51, D-69117 Heidelberg, Germany; Tel: ++49622154-7305, -7388 (Secr); Fax: ++49 622154-7273; E-mail:


Managing multiple and conflicting goals is a demand typical to both everyday life and complex coordination tasks. Two experiments (N = 111) investigated how goal conflicts affect motivation and cognition in a complex problemsolving paradigm. In Experiment 1, participants dealt with a game-like computer simulation involving a predefined goal relation: Parallel goals were independent, mutually facilitating, or interfering with one another. As expected, goal conflicts entailed lowered motivation and wellbeing. Participants' understanding of causal effects within the simulation was impaired, too. Behavioral measures of subjects' interventions support the idea of adaptive, self-regulatory processes: reduced action with growing awareness of the goal conflict and balanced goal pursuit. Experiment 2 endorses the hypotheses of motivation loss and reduced acquisition of system-related knowledge in an extended problem-solving paradigm of four conflicting goals. Impairing effects of goal interference on motivation and wellbeing were found, although less distinct and robust as in Experiment 1. Participants undertook fewer interventions in case of a goal conflict and acquired less knowledge about the system. Formal complexity due to the interconnectedness among goals is discussed as a limiting influence on inferring the problem structure.

Keywords: complex problem solving, complex problem solving, goal conflicts, motivation, system knowledge, strategy.