Research at GOAL is based on the assumption that human intelligent behavior is essentially goal-oriented, and that the mind evolved to serve (and thus is constrained by) the finalistic nature of behavioral control.
A goal is defined as an anticipatory internal representation that
- can be used as a target state to guide one's conduct,
- grounds value judgments on reality, marking a state of affair as positive, negative, or neutral with respect to the agent,
- acts as a filter/constraint on cognitive processes that are not typically goal-oriented but nevertheless evolved to support goal-oriented reasoning and action (memory, belief formation, etc.).
As such, a goal is a goal already before and without being selected to actually guide behavior, and the process by which a goal becomes active and might end up orienting the agent's action (goal processing) is a key element in the study of goal-oriented behavior.
This implies that GOAL research tackles a variety of domains, from action control to decision making, from belief formation to emotion regulation, from social interaction to normative behavior, and more (for the full list, see our Research page).
Albeit crucial, goals are not the only finalistic mechanism orienting intelligent behavior: other important candidates include adaptive and social functions (e.g. reproduction is the ultimate driving force behind courtship, regardless of whether two potential partners have that goal in mind or not) and simpler anticipatory mechanisms involved in action control (e.g. the expectations embedded in so called anticipatory classifiers, where an anticipation of a future state of affair triggers a rigid response to it). At GOAL we also study how internal goals relate to external adaptive functions, and how complex goal-oriented cognition might have evolved from (and continuously interact with) simpler anticipatory mechanisms for action regulation.
Finally, the notion of goal that we endorse is operational and derived from cybernetics, and it refers to a use of an internal representation, rather than to a kind of representation (in this perspective, belief p and goal p are different uses of the same representation p). As such, it has both similarities and differences with other finalistic notions commonly employed in the study of purposive behavior, such as desires, intentions, preferences, utility, etc. Disentangling the complex relationship between these conceptual entities is also part of our job description at GOAL.
Regarding methodology, GOAL research is model-driven: we all share the aim of producing operational models of whatever phenomenon or aspects of goal-oriented behavior we focus on, instead of confining ourselves to local predictions. On a grander scale, we have the long-term ambition of connecting one day all the dots in a unified theory of cognition as goal-oriented – but there are many dots in that picture, admittedly, so we prefer to scale-up our models one step at a time.
In order to do that, we employ a combination of conceptual analysis, computational modeling, and empirical research (using both experiments, field data, and computer-based simulations). Here again we believe in the importance of "closing the loop": empirical research should be always driven by theoretical concerns and possibly paired with a clear computational model of the underlying process being studied, and in turn empirical data should feedback on both theory and model.