A citizen science project to learn how the brain achieves goals

Tracking your personal goals here will help us develop a new technology to augment the brain's ability to achieve goals

How Living Experiments works

There are two main parts of Living Experiments, and two minor parts. The two main parts are the GoalSet and Goalpedia.

The GoalSet is a special kind of to-do list that is organized by your personal goals. Each goal can have a series of strategies and simple to-do items attached to it. Clicking on a goal collapses the others, helping you focus on one goal at a time.

Goalpedia is an encyclopedia of goals and strategies for accomplishing those goals. There are over a hundred goals in Goalpedia right now, with more to come. Each goal has an entry that can have a description and a list of either goal-specific strategies or general strategies (i.e., strategies that can apply to any goal). Each strategy has a description along with a list of action steps that (once added to the GoalSet) are presented one-at-a-time as you go through the strategy.

These goals and strategies can be easily added to the GoalSet for easy to-do list style implementation.

The two minor parts of Living Experiments are your GoalStream (a list of your accomplishments) and your Notifications (a list of reminders for things to do or goals to track). Notifications are sent to you via email so you don't need to keep checking the website for reminders.

By tracking goals and experimenting with strategies you will be providing data to help science better understand how goals are achieved in everyday life. Your data will also help others, as it will go anonymously toward selecting the best strategies for others who have the same goal.

The Living Experiments Web Interface – Left: Example goals are shown, with one uncollapsed goal (“Exercise regularly”) showing a strategy with an action step (a tracker) below it. There is also a simple to-do item below that. Right: A Goalpedia entry is shown for a strategy. The strategy (along with its action steps) can be easily added to the GoalSet by pressing the “Add to your GoalSet” button.

Sign up for Living Experiments here:

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ):

What is a living experiment?

As cognitive neuroscientists we are familiar with neuroscience and psychology experiments, and the many ways to improve these experiments for the benefit of science. Yet there’s another, unappreciated kind of experiment we’re all intimately familiar with, but don’t necessarily know how to improve: living experiments.

A "living experiment" is a strategy you try out to achieve some goal in your life. For instance, you might try going to bed at a different time with the goal of feeling more refreshed every morning. Or you might try a new diet to lose weight and feel healthier. Or you might try out a new strategy to achieve more at work, or a new way to find cheap plane tickets in support of your goal to travel the world.

These are all living experiments. We do them every day, and they have a huge impact on our lives.

Unlike science experiments, we’re just “winging it” when it comes to living experiments. The question is: Is there a better way?

What does Living Experiments have to do with cognitive neuroscience?

Our group's research on the neuroscience of goal-directed cognition led us to realize that living experiments are really about achieving goals, and identifying strategies for accomplishing those goals. We further realized that we all have an amazing ability that can take our living experiments to the next level: we can easily transfer strategies that work from one brain to another.

This realization — that we could utilize our ability to rapidly instruct each other to improve our lives — lead us to begin creating a website to facilitate this process: Living Experiments.

Of course, we “instruct” each other with advice all the time, but typically with limited success. Living Experiments is designed to change that — to pool our intelligence to identify effective life strategies.

We plan to investigate the brain basis of goal pursuit using Living Experiments by observing individual differences. We will have some Living Experiment participants volunteer to have brain scans, and observe what is different about the brains of those who accomplish many versus not so many life goals.

Can you give me an example of how Living Experiments can be useful in everyday life?

A specific example from my own experience:
I added the "Maintain a happy mood" goal, which helps me focus on that goal. I also added the "Writing down your gratitude (weekly)" strategy for accomplishing that goal. This reminds me (via email) to write down things I'm grateful for on a weekly basis, which has been shown scientifically to boost a sense of well-being.

Another example:
I added the "Eat healthier" goal, which helps me focus on that goal. I also added the "Simple tracker: Did you eat vegetables today?" strategy for accomplishing that goal, which asks me every day (via email) if I've eaten vegetables. This helps me keep track of whether or not I eat vegetables every day. This is both motivating and informative for my efforts to eat healthier. (Note that not all strategies send reminders). I also used a simple to-do item ("Buy wheat bread") for this goal to remind myself to buy healthy bread at the store :)

Who is involved in this project? What are its goals?

We are the Cole Neuroscience Laboratory, located at the Center for Molecular & Behavioral Neuroscience (CMBN) at Rutgers University - Newark. The lab is run by principal investigator Michael W. Cole.

Michael's collaborator Patryk Laurent has also been a major contributor to the project.

This project seeks to improve scientific understanding of goal pursuit in the real world using online data collection. Specifically, this is an online “citizen science” project in which individuals list their personal goals and track progress accomplishing those goals.

There has been extensive research into cognitive control – the cognitive processes underlying goal-directed behavior (Cole, Laurent, & Stocco, 2013; Diamond, 2013). However, cognitive control research is almost exclusively conducted in the laboratory, such that how cognitive control relates to real-life goals is largely unknown. In contrast, social psychology has used surveys and other related methods to investigate real-life goals (Aarts & Elliot, 2012). However, those studies have not investigated how real-life goal pursuit is related to cognitive control. Further, those studies have not investigated how real-life goal pursuit is related to brain properties. The current project seeks to investigate the relationship between goal pursuit and cognitive control, as well as brain properties. This will be accomplished using individual difference correlations, testing for individual differences in cognitive control and brain properties that are correlated with individual differences in goal pursuit.

However, at this stage of the project we will focus primarily on the structure of real-life goal pursuit independently of cognitive control and brain properties. This reflects a major advantage of our approach, which involves ongoing tracking of goal pursuit rather than the survey approach typically used in social psychology. Specifically, we will use an online interface to collect participant goals as well as strategies they are using. Participants will then track their goal progress and strategy usage. We can then analyze these data to determine the kinds of goals that people pursue, which goals are accomplished most often, and what strategies tend to work for accomplishing different goals. This general approach of using online tracking for research has become more popular recently with the advent of advanced Internet and mobile technologies (Atz, 2012; Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010). This approach allows for potentially more accurate data collection because participants can provide data in a more natural manner, potentially more often, and more “in context” to the data of interest.

Aarts, H., & Elliot, A. (2012). Goal-directed behavior. Taylor & Francis.
Atz, U. (2012). Evaluating experience sampling of stress in a single-subject research design. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing. http://doi.org/10.1007/s00779-012-0512-7
Cole, M. W., Laurent, P., & Stocco, A. (2013). Rapid instructed task learning: a new window into the human brain's unique capacity for flexible cognitive control. Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience, 13(1), 1–22. http://doi.org/10.3758/s13415-012-0125-7
Diamond, A. (2013). Executive Functions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64(1), 135–168. http://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143750
Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science (New York, NY), 330(6006), 932–932. http://doi.org/10.1126/science.1192439

Who do I contact if I have other questions?

You can email us at livingexperiments@gmail.com