Interacting with Intent: Nicholas A. Palomares

By Andrew McCullough - Every social interaction is shaped by goals—our own, and those of the other people involved. As we interact, we draw inferences about the goals of others, both consciously and unconsciously. Nicholas A. Palomares, associate professor of communication, studies these inferences, including the extent to which they can influence a given goal’s “outcome success.”

Palomares’ research interests evolved out of studies in psychology and language. He and other communication researchers use psychological processes and frameworks to understand communication between people, and how their interactions influence behavior.

Upon reading a special issue journal release in grad school, Palomares serendipitously found the topic of goal inferences—our assessments of others’ intents and objectives. He recognized that these inferences likely occur across all types of social interaction, and are likely to affect communication and communication outcomes.

Take the hint

In previous work, Palomares has shown empirically that we can infer others’ goals in brief interactions. By putting two people together for a conversation and giving one of them a specific goal for the interaction, he was able to manipulate the goal and later ask the “target” participant if they knew what the goal was. This early work showed that goals typical for a situation are easily inferred, but goals inconsistent with the context of the interaction are only inferred if they are efficiently pursued with direct behaviors.

It makes sense that we are adept at inferring others’ objectives, as goals are a primary reason we communicate in the first place. “We interact with intent, objectives, and goals,” says Palomares. “Our messages are riddled with hints of those goals." 

His current research focuses on two questions. First, how do others gain understanding of our objectives? Second, how does their understanding impact the success of goal pursuit?

To examine the effects of goal inferences in real-world situations, Palomares surveys participants about past social interactions in which one person had a specific goal. He collects information about the type of goal and whether the participant was the target of the goal or the initiator, as well as the outcome success of the goal. He also examines the inferences that were drawn about the goal, according to classification frameworks based in communication theories.

For your own good

Palomares recently showed that the inferences we draw about others’ goals for influencing our health can have effects on our behavior and the outcome success of the goal, and thus might influence our health.

To examine how goal inferences affect interactions involving health-related behaviors, Palomares and his colleagues surveyed participants about situations in which another person wanted to influence a health-related behavior of the participant. The study examined attempts to influence a variety of health-enhancing and health-compromising behaviors. For example, he examined situations in which someone attempted to influence health-enhancing behaviors (such as exercise habits or sleep habits), as well as health-compromising behaviors like consumption of tobacco or alcohol.

Communication theories suggest that people pursue goals according to hierarchies. Thus, Palomares classified participants’ inferences about the other’s goals into superordinate categories of benevolent and self-centered goals. He then examined how those inferences relate to the perceived effectiveness of the influence attempt.

Palomares showed that a target person’s assessment of an influencer’s goal is related to the outcome success of the goal. So, for example, if a friend attempts to influence your alcohol consumption, you may infer their goals are benevolent (they are concerned for your health) or self-centered (they don’t like being woken up late at night). Your inference can impact whether and how hard you try to limit alcohol consumption, and thus can affect the outcome success of their goal.

Relational closeness was also linked with a higher likelihood of inferring benevolent goals, so we are more likely to infer benevolent goals if the influencer is near and dear to us. This indirectly suggests that attempts to influence our health are more effective when they come from people we have a close relationship with, because we are more likely to infer their goals as benevolent—and benevolent inferences are related to more effective influence attempts.

Approach or avoid

In collaboration with communication doctoral candidate Cassandra Alexopoulos, Palomares has also recently examined situations in which someone wants to escalate a platonic friendship into a romantic relationship. He surveyed people who had experienced such a situation in the last few years, and he assessed goal inferences from the perspective of the target as well as the initiator of the goal.

To do so, he used separate surveys, so that participants who identified as the initiator of a relationship escalation attempt were directly asked about their goals, while participants who identified as the target of the escalation attempt were asked what they inferred about the initiator’s goals. In this way, he was able to examine both perspectives while remaining focused on the goals of the initiator.

One can assume that anyone attempting to escalate a friendship into romance will have both benevolent and self-serving goals. So, for the context of relationship escalation attempts, Palomares examined goal inferences using an Approach/Avoid framework. That meant categorizing specific goals into superordinate categories of approach goals (securing emotional closeness or a compatible partner, for example) or avoidance goals (avoiding isolation/loneliness, or eliminating social pressure).

In general, he found that approach goals were more likely to predict success in the escalation attempt. He also found that approach and avoidance goals predicted directness of the escalation attempt, politeness strategies used in the attempt, and “face threats” (such as one’s concern to maintain approval of others or maintain autonomy and independence). Thus, whether we infer approach or avoidance goals influences how we interact in the situation, and in turn predicts whether the relationship escalation attempt is successful.

Illuminating the impacts

Palomares’ ongoing work shows that the inferences we make about others’ goals have widespread effects in our lives. We communicate with intent and, indeed, naturally draw inferences about the intentions of others. Our goal inferences impact the success of others’ influence attempts by affecting our behavior.

In future work, Palomares intends to examine the impacts of goal inferences in other domains. He is currently beginning collaborative work in the domain of bullying, studying bullying both in-person and online. The motivation of this collaboration is to understand how goal inferences impact the effectiveness of bullying behavior. How do the goal inferences drawn by a bully’s target affect the impact of the bullying behavior?

Given the ubiquity of goals underlying social interactions, there are numerous other domains in which Palomares could apply this work. Given his penchant for thinking in broad theoretical terms, his future work will no doubt continue to illuminate the impacts that our goal inferences have on social interactions familiar to all of us.

Learn more about Nicholas A. Palomares.

Filed under: