Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/Chunking and goal pursuit

Chunking and goal pursuit:
How does chunking affect goal pursuit?



Sometimes reaching a goal can be an immensely overwhelming and difficult task. Maybe your assignment consists of too many parts or hitting 10 seconds on the 100m sprint seems too farfetched. In this book chapter we discuss/ analyse and critically evaluate the key psychological mechanisms involved in chunking and goal pursuit. The chapter identifies the relevance of various psychological concepts in relation to chunking and goal pursuit. Of which, these include various chunking mechanisms, goal setting theory and various case studies[grammar?]. We also aim to aid the reader in understanding how to apply chunking in the pursuit of goals.

Focus questions:

  • What are chunks and why are they important?
  • How and why do goals help?
  • How can we apply these theoretical concepts into everyday life?



Chunking, first coined by George A. Miller 1956, is as a mechanism for human learning. A chunk is a stored piece of information in the human mind which collects several subcomponents of information from the environment and stores them as a single unit (GOBET et al., 2001). The brain does this in order to reduce cognitive load. For example, when you think of the word fruit, various images of apples, bananas, oranges etc will pop up in your head. In this context, the word fruit is the chunk and its subcomponents of information are the apples, bananas, oranges etc. This process is mainly due to the limitations felt by short term memory, where we can only hold five to seven items ( Mcgregor, 1987). The first display of chunkings' effectiveness was in an experiment done by A. De Groot in the 1960s.

Figure 1.1: A. De Groot : Chunking Experiment discovering the effectiveness of chunking as a thought process

Thought as a choice in chess


In the 1940s Dutch psychologist and amateur chess player A. De Groot , found that he struggled to keep up with better chess players. He figured that they were just extremely gifted, however upon some careful consideration he created a chess experiment to discover, [grammar?]what really separated novices from chess grandmasters ( de Groot, 1946). The experiment consisted of showing participants of varying chess playing experience a board from a master’s game for between 2-15 seconds. After which the subjects were asked to mimic the placement of pieces using a different board[grammar?]. After which they were given the same task but with pieces sitting in completely random positions (see figure 1.1).[grammar?]

As suspected, the results from the first set of data showed a significant difference wherein grandmasters could remember the entire set up and novices could only remember a few pieces. The second attempt came with surprising results as subjects recalled a similar number of pieces. This discovery was ground-breaking because it helped identify that superb memory isn’t the reason for an advanced understanding of chess piece positioning. The study highlighted the presence of a concept called chunking. Where grandmasters had mastered the art of organising and coding entire sequences of moves into their brains[grammar?]. Leaving room for them to make logical predictions of where pieces might end up[grammar?]. This also lead to the discovery that once tight chunks are formed (schema), they can be extremely difficult to change even when new information is presented.

Furthermore, chunking can be broken down into two categories. These are perceptual chunking and goal oriented chunking. The method of chunking can also be broken into two chunking variations which are tight and loose chunking.Template:Facxt

Case Study: Amiee is a year 11 student trying memorise two phone numbers for a memory task in her psychology class. She only has 30 minutes before the test and she spends so much time struggling to remember all 20 numbers 0452316199, 0456733890. However, she realises that if she breaks up the numbers into three smaller pieces 0452-316-199 and 0456-733-890 the task becomes so much easier. This simplification process is called chunking.

Types of chunking


We know that chunks are meaningful units containing stored information of which have similar properties or correlations[grammar?]. What differentiates some chunks from others is the method in which the chunk was created. Here we discuss goal-oriented and perceptual chunks. It is also important to consider that the way in which chunks are stored can make a considerable difference in cognition. The methods of which chunks are stored include tight and loose chunking[grammar?].

Perceptual chunking

First suggested by Chase and Simon, perceptual chunks are rather implicit in nature and are seen as a by-product of perception. Allowing for the comprehension of an overwhelming environment which we are faced with[grammar?]. Perceptual chunks are complex however they are limited to four chunks ( Cowen, 2001 ).

Goal oriented chunking


Unlike perceptual chunks which are automatic, goal-oriented chunks are strategic and intentional ( ). These are where you recode information but in a more efficient way. They also require multiple steps as well as an implementation plan to be effective.

Tight chunking

Tight chunks are where the components that make up the chunk are not meaningful themselves. These can be quite difficult to alter because individuals are rarely aware of the chunking ( like the strokes of “\” and “/” in the letter “V”) ( Wu, 2013).

Loose chunking

Unlike tight chunks loose chunks contain meaningful subcomponents or there is easy access to these subcomponents. Individuals are usually aware of these chunks, therefore making them much easier to alter ( such as identifying a ‘lion’ and a ‘tiger’ as cats in a string of random animals).

Case Study: Harry lost a bet with one of his colleagues and as a result, he is tasked with running a marathon in six months. Given that Harry has no long-distance running experience he knows that he will need to practise running. Instead of attempting to run 42km right away, he breaks the run into more manageable pieces. First run 1km, then 2km, then 5km etc… He finds that by creating smaller more manageable goals, he doesn’t feel as overwhelmed.

1 Harry utilises perceptual chunking:


2 Harrys'[grammar?] goals are tight chunks:


Goal Pursuit


Goals are an essential tool for humans as they give us something to work towards. Whether it be hourly, daily, monthly etc. At its core, goal directed action is based in biology, all living organisms need to engage in goal directed actions in order to survive[grammar?]. All organisms have needs and needs require action to fulfil (Locke & Latham, 2013). However, what separates humans from more primitive species is the ability to think, and therefore have the ability to choose their goals whether they be short or long term. Humans have this option, however how they choose to use this is highly variable. One key concept that has aided in the production of many theories, models and literature in the study of motivation is the presence of goals and goal pursuit. In order to understand how goals can be achieved easier, we first need to understand what a goal is. According to ("APA Dictionary of Psychology", 2022), a goal is “a target of proficiency to be achieved in a task within a set period of time.”. Goals can vary in outcome as well as goal intention. In motivational psychology there are two key types of goals which are known as performance and learning goals. Goal pursuit requires the implementation of three essential tools of which these include goal setting, goal striving and mental contrasting. Furthermore, there are some theories/ models that can aid in understanding why and how we pursue goals. One such theory is known as “ Goal Setting Theory”.[factual?]

Goal setting Theory

Figure 2.1: Imagery used to display the final step of goal pursuit. Goal attainment

[How does this relate to chunking?]

Goal setting Theory, [grammar?] is a motivational psychological theory first introduced in 1968 by Edwin A. Locke. The theory takes inspiration from various motivational concepts, namely Drive Theory, Hull (1952) and Reinforcement Theory,  Skinner ( 1953). The theory suggests that the reason for some people performing better than others in the same task is due to conscious variations in performance goals (Locke et al., 1990) . Goal setting is the development of an action plan made intentionally in order to reach a desired outcome ( ). The first display of its efficacy was from 1990-2002 where over 400 laboratory experiments were examined[factual?]. These studies came to the causal conclusion that setting specific and ‘hard’ goals lead to far better performance from individuals as opposed to easy/ broad goals (Locke & Latham, 1990, 2002). The reason for hard or high goals resulting in greater performance is all due to motivation. High, or hard goals are motivating because they require one to attain more in order to be satisfied, in contrast to low or easy goals (Latham & Yukl, 1975). Due to these studies various concepts and models have been created with the intention of creating specific and hard goals to create the best performance from individuals (see S.M.A.R.T framework). Goals (see figure 2.1) in conjunction with self-efficacy mediate or at least partially mediate other motivating variables, namely feedback.

Goal striving


[How does this relate to chunking?]

Goals can be framed as ideal states and the discrepancy between where you are now and your ideal state acts as a motivational force. The discrepancy can be reduced through one of two methods, one being goal striving or modifying the ideal self so that it is more similar to the actual self (Messermet et al., 2010 ). In order for goal striving to be successful goals need to be framed correctly. This can be done by making sure that goals are specific as opposed to general ‘work hard’ goals. Furthermore, goal content is also very important such as thematic content ( autonomy, competence and social integration are said to have further intrinsic value) (Oettingen & Gollwitzer, 2004).). Importantly, goal intentions play a very large role in the success of goal striving ( see figure 3.1)

Goal Intention


[How does this relate to chunking?]

Although the process of pursuing goals is extremely important, so too is the goal type. According to Locke and Latham (1990) there are two types of goal intention, learning goals and performance goals. Learning goals focus on knowledge and skill acquisition. They involve focusing attention to mastering a task and reaching learning based objectives. It [what?] can be extremely effective in group contexts because it allows for team members to pool their knowledge and devise group strategies aimed at achieving a higher goals (Nahrgang et al., 2013). In contrast to this, performance goals are goals with the sole intention of reaching a desired outcome ("APA Dictionary of Psychology", 2022). Setting performance goals too early can drastically reduce a persons[grammar?] effectiveness at performance because of how important the early learning phase is in terms of task performance (Seijits & Latham, 2005). Learning goals appear to be much more effective because they allow for coping with negative feedback (see Table 1.1). As such, failure indicates room for improvement for people who have set learning goals. In contrast to this negative feedback indicates failure and lack of ability in people with performance goals and may in turn lead to giving up prematurely.

Table 1.1 Difference summary of Goal Intentions
Goal Intention Learning Goals Performance Goals
  • Individuals gain knowledge and skills
  • Effective in group contexts
  • Minimizes perceived failure in tasks
  • Allows for greatest accomplishments (Usain Bolt 100m 9.58s)
  • Results in greater feelings of success
  • Typically avoidance focused
  • Too much focus on learning reduces focus on performance
  • Failure may lead to withdrawal
  • Failure much more likely if still in early learning phase

Mental Contrasting


[How does this relate to chunking?]

Mental contrasting is a self regulation process necessary for strong goal commitment (Cross & Sheffield, 2016). When mental contrasting is used effectively individuals imagine a desired future goal and contrast it with reality proceeding the intended goal state. Afterward, reflection is viewed as an obstacle (Oettingen et al., 2001). Mental contrasting a positive future with reality allows individuals to turn positive attitudes and high efficacy into strong goal commitment. On the flip side, this strategy can also be used to decrease goal commitment. This was first observed by ( Kapes 1971) where expectations of reaching a desired outcome were high then mental contrasting strengthened the association between the desired future and reality. When expectations were low, then mental contrasting lowered association between desired future and reality.

The role of feedback in goal pursuit


[How does this relate to chunking?]

Feedback or more specifically performance feedback is a highly influential moderator variable when looking into goal pursuit. Information on failed or successful actions allows people to decide if more effort or alternative strategy is required in order to reach their goal (Bandura, 1991; Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Festinger, 1954; Locke & Latham, 1990). Feedback is especially important when learning goals are sought out because they allow for individuals to reach mastery of goals. There are two types of feedback strategies that can be used for goal pursuit, these include positive and negative feedback.  Positive feedback is a type of feedback which focusses on amplifying strengths by reinforcing what people are doing well. In contrast negative feedback is aimed at reducing behaviours. Some theories suggest that positive feedback is more effective because it increases confidence in ones own ability (Atkinson, 1964; Bandura & Cervone, 1983; Lewin, 1935; Weiner, 1974; Zajonc & Brickman, 1969). In contrast to this some argue that negative feedback is more effective because positive feedback leads to a sense of partial goal attainment which in turn may lead to people believing that less effort is required to reach the desired goal (Carver & Scheier, 1998; Higgins, 1987; Kluger & DeNisi, 1996; Locke & Latham, 1990; Miller, Galanter, & Pribram, 1960; Powers, 1973). However, (Fishbach et al., 2010) suggests that the type of feedback used and its efficacy is mostly circumstantial and can vary between individuals.

Case Study: Thien and Billy are two woodwork students who are given the task of creating a wooden beam out of timber for their woodwork class. They have broken their project into steps, set out specific and challenging goals and they believe that their project is going to work because they are doing their best. However two months into their project, they find that they are faced with a major design flaw and do not know how to fix it.

Which goal pursuit strategy should the boys consider?:

Goal setting
Mental contrasting

Chunking and Goal Pursuit

Figure 3.1: Tony Robbins giving a TED talk on chunking

Chunking and goal setting are two concepts that can be very effective if used in unison. One advocate of the chunking concept is American author and philanthropist Tony Robbins (see figure 3.1) [grammar?] Who frequently highlights the advantages, implications and methods for chunking. In this video , he describes how daily goals can be reached by using goal-oriented chunking. He also highlights application of goal-oriented chunking (see figure 3.2).

Considering all that we have learned about chunking, goals and various concepts[grammar?]. This begs the question ‘ How could chunking be used in the pursuit of goals?’ Let’s take a look!

Figure 3.2: A brief example of goal-oriented chunking

Case Study: Benjit is a twenty-one-year-old chef who works in Sydney restaurant. He has been working there for many years and due to his Italian heritage, he wishes to move to Italy. However, given that he is still young, and migrating is an extremely complex and costly task. Moving away seems almost entirely far-fetched and completely out of reach.

He knows that he will need money ( but doesn’t know how much), he knows that he will need to organise work ( but he doesn’t know where or how) and he knows that he will need to organise a place to stay ( but he doesn’t know where or how).

First. Before the outcome can be reached, Goal Setting Theory tells us that a specific goal/s first need to be set. Goals can come in various forms. In most instances selecting a learning goal instead of a performance goal leads to a higher chance of you completing your goal and learning something in the process. Next, utilising cognitive strategies such as mental contrasting can be extremely effective and cannot be overlooked. In Benjts case, it would be beneficial if he imagined where he is now and then imagined his ideal state. Thirdly, chunking is a method in which we can make tasks easier and more efficient. When looking to pursue a goal, one of the most difficult tasks is overcoming  that feeling of being overwhelmed. Finally, feedback is an effective method to remain goal striving. Negative feedback reduces unwanted behaviours and positive feedback increases wanted behaviours.

Which goal/s should Benjit set?

1 Quick Quiz:

Which goal/s should Benjit set?:

Save an extra $200 a week, look at three properties a week
Work more hours and look at flights
Fly to Italy by 01/01/2025
Find a night job

2 What would Benjits[grammar?] mental contrast look like?:

Playing basketball with some friends from school
Buying a really cool new car
Going for a stroll over the Sydney Harbour bridge after work
Sitting in an Italian café sipping espresso

3 How might Benjit utilise chunking?:

By breaking his larger goal of moving into smaller more manageable steps
Trying to memorise Italian streets
By attempting to reorganise his schema
By selling his car

4 Given that Benjits goal is entirely intrinsic, how might he receive feedback?:

By self made objectives ( such as monetary eg. saving $40,000)
By asking his boss Belinda for an evaluation
By utilizing online quizzes
By getting a loan



This chapter provided an overview of the variables that motivate people to pursue goals. We have identified key concepts such as Goal Setting Theory and chunking. Thereby determining what chunks are and why they are important[grammar?]. It is important to note that there are some directly applicable concepts that we did not choose to explore[vague][Why not?]. Moreover, there were also some limitations in research surrounding chunking, especially regarding chunking types such as tight/loose chunking[Provide more detail]. We have also worked through applying many of the theories identified into common settings allowing the audience to identify these patterns in their everyday lives. Overall, this has been an exciting take on motivation, and we hope that you learned something valuable from it[vague][What are the practical, take-home messages?].

See also



GOBET, F., LANE, P., CROKER, S., CHENG, P., JONES, G., OLIVER, I., & PINE, J. (2001). Chunking mechanisms in human learning. Trends In Cognitive Sciences, 5(6), 236-243.

Mcgregor, J. (1987). Short-term memory capacity: Limitation or optimization?. Retrieved 6 October 2022, from

de Groot, A. D. (1946). Het denken van den schaker: een experimenteel-psychologische studie. Noord-Hollandsche Uitgevers Maatschappij.

Cowan, N. (2001). The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity. Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 24(1), 87-114.

Wu, L., Knoblich, G., & Luo, J. (2013). The role of chunk tightness and chunk familiarity in problem solving: evidence from ERPs and fMRI. Human brain mapping, 34(5), 1173–1186.

Locke, E., & Latham, G. (2013). A Theory of Goal Setting and Task PerformanceA Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance, by LockeEdwin A. and LathamGary P.. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1990. Academy Of Management Review, 16(2), 440-483.

APA Dictionary of Psychology. (2022). Retrieved 17 September 2022, from

Latham, G., & Yukl, G. (1975). A Review of Research on the Application of Goal Setting in Organizations. Academy Of Management Journal, 18(4), 824-845.

Messersmith, E. E., & Schulenberg, J. E. (2010). Goal attainment, goal striving, and well-being during the transition to adulthood: a ten-year U.S. national longitudinal study. New directions for child and adolescent development, 2010(130), 27–40.

Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P. (2004). Goal setting and goal striving (1st ed., pp. 45-96).

APA Dictionary of Psychology. (2022). Retrieved 3 October 2022, from

Seijts, Gerard & Latham, Gary. (2005). Learning versus performance goals: When should each be used?. Academy of Management Perspectives. 19. 124-131. 10.5465/AME.2005.15841964.

Cross, A., & Sheffield, D. (2016). Mental contrasting as a behaviour change technique: a systematic review protocol paper of effects, mediators and moderators on health. Systematic reviews, 5(1), 201.

Fishbach, A., Eyal, T., & Finkelstein, S. (2010). How Positive and Negative Feedback Motivate Goal Pursuit. Social And Personality Psychology Compass, 4(8), 517-530.