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The concept of goal orientation (GO)[1][2] was developed to describe variability in dispositional or situational goal preferences that an individual implicitly sets for him/herself in achievement situations. GOs assist in providing a motivational framework for how individuals perceive, interpret, and judge reaction to key events in their lives. Empirical research on GOs has shown non-trivial effects on a broad range of outcomes such as task-specific self-efficacy, learning strategies, feedback seeking, and state anxiety.[3]

Origins of goal orientation[edit]

Educational psychology[edit]

As cited in Payne, Youngcourt, and Beaubien (2007), GO first emerged in the literature based on studies on primary school children during the 1970s and 1980s. Using Atkinson's (1964) theory of achievement motivation, researchers were interested in explaining the differences in classroom learning styles.

Student achievement[edit]

Using a college sample, Eison (1979) was interested in explaining why some students were narrowly focused on achieving superior grades while others seemed to focus more on the learning process. After developing a questionnaire protocol, he was able to classify students into two primary categories. He found that some students adopted a learning orientation, such that advanced schooling represented an opportunity to acquire knowledge, develop mastery over a set of skills, and provide general enlightenment over a breadth of information. Other students assumed a more pragmatic perspective which Eison termed a grade orientation. In this group, the grade achieved represented the ultimate outcome for effort. Although Eison initially viewed these conflicting orientations as opposite ends along a continuum, he later refined his definitions and the Learning Orientation–Grade Orientation scale to reflect more independent constructs.[4]

A similar approach was used by Dweck and colleagues on a younger population.[5][6] Attempting to understand this orientation difference from a developmental goal perspective, Dweck focused on primary school children by giving them a series of increasingly difficult word problems. While some children seemed to thrive when presented with these new challenges, other children experienced an opposite reaction and instead became discouraged and disengaged from the task. These differing perspectives highlighted a significant difference in how the children were approaching, interpreting, and responding to the situation. Dweck's research resulted in what is considered the most common description of goal orientation: 1) a learning goal orientation in which individuals approach learning to gain and assume mastery of knowledge, skills, and behaviors; or 2) a performance goal orientation in which individuals are driven to perform at a desired degree in order to achieve positive judgments or avoid unfavorable judgments.[7]

Application of goal orientation[edit]

One of the critical applied questions regarding the use of GO revolves around its ability to predict work-related outcomes. Research suggests that GO can impact a wide variety of training outcomes and subsequent performance, to include training,[8][9] adaptability,[10] leadership styles,[11] general performance,[12] and team building effects.[13] Recent reviews[14][15] and a meta-analysis[16] of the GO literature have succinctly integrated its diverse conceptual perspectives as a prime self-regulation process and provided useful summative effects across antecedents and consequences of its primary dimensions.

Goal orientation conceptualizations[edit]

Goal orientation dimensionality[edit]

Researchers have conceptualized GO from one dimension to a possible six dimensions; the most prominent number of dimensions used in the literature being two, closely followed by three.[17] While two or three dimensions are the most common ways to conceptualize GO, the actual dimensions used from study to study vary. The two most common dimensions utilized are mastery-oriented or learning-oriented, and performance-oriented or achievement-oriented. Button et al. (1996) define performance GO as the motivation to show one's competence or ability on a certain task or subject. They then define learning GO as the motivation to acquire new knowledge or attain a deeper understanding of a certain task or subject.

Performance GO may then be decomposed into two different dimensions, this process translates into the most-often encountered description of three levels of dimensionality. Researchers state that the motivation to perform can come in two different forms, performance–approach and performance–avoid.[18][19] Elliot and McGregor (2001) conceptualize the different dimensions of GO in terms of valence, or the attractiveness of a certain goal method, and in terms of the definition of competence, or referent that is used in the evaluation of performance. They state that valence can be thought of as positive, approaching success, or negative, avoiding failure; and that the competence referent can be thought of as intrapersonal/absolute or normative. The intrapersonal/absolute referent refers to an individual's own maximum potential for attainment, and the normative referent refers to the performance of others. Different combinations of these four categories lays out Elliot and Mcgregor's (2001) typology.

The first combination of valence and the referent is positive valence and a normative referent, performance–approach. The performance–approach GO encompasses the motivation to prove/demonstrate one's competence or ability on a certain subject or task. The second combination is negative valence and a normative referent, performance–avoid. The performance–avoid GO encompasses the motivation to avoid looking incompetent or showing inability of a certain task or subject. The most common method of dealing with the absolute/intrapersonal referent is to lump positive and negative valence together to end up with the more common single dimension of mastery-oriented GO. These three dimensions; performance–approach, performance–avoid, and mastery; is the second most common conceptualization of dimensions in the GO literature.[20][21]

Stemming from the three dimensions, slightly less common is the decomposition of the mastery GO into two subgroups of mastery–approach and mastery–avoid, translating into the conceptualization of four dimensions. Following the typology that Elliot and McGregor (2001) present, those that possess an absolute/intrapersonal referent and have positive valence are classified as mastery–approach, in other words they seek to gain all the knowledge or ability they are able to during the attainment of their goal. Those that possess an absolute/intrapersonal referent and have negative valence are classified as mastery–avoid, in other words they seek to avoid their knowledge regressing to a previous level of comprehension or competence.

Worth mentioning is the multiple goal perspective that takes into account the fact that utilizing both a mastery GO and performance GO might be beneficial above and beyond the normal view that a person can only take on a single GO. Barron and Harackiewicz (2001) show support for the multiple goal perspective by comparing students using a single GO versus the multiple GO approach. The benefits stemmed from showing that having a high-mastery GO was associated with a high level of interest and having a high-performance GO was associated with a high level of performance on the task.

Dominant conceptualizations[edit]

There are many different conceptualizations and operationalizations of the GO construct, some researchers point out the wide array of GO definitions a reviewer might find when reading the GO literature. However, a closer look into the literature reveals that when defining GO there are five distinct categories on how to define the construct, and these categories pertain to the different methods/areas of research on the topic. These categories represent the most common themes and perspectives on GO that various researchers utilize when conducting their research. The following summary of the five categories is taken from DeShon & Gillespie's (2005) article on GO.

The first, and most common, approach when defining GO is the "goal" approach, and in this approach researchers see GO as the pursuit and attainment of goals in an achievement context. For example, Elliot and Harackiewicz (1996) use completion of puzzle tasks as an outcome of whether or not the participant attained their goals.

The second approach when defining GO is the trait method. With the trait method GO is deemed a disposition or personality variable that an individual may possess that effects that individual's achievement of goals in a goal-attainment situation. With this approach researchers can measure a GO several times throughout an experiment or study to show the stability of GO, lending support to the dispositional outlook on GO.[22]

The third approach when defining GO is the quasi-trait method. The quasi-trait method is similar to the previous trait method except those that prescribe to the quasi-trait method state that when there is a high enough situational strength GO may be modified or changed. Button et al. (1996) showed that when looking at the reports of students on their attainment of goals there is a general disposition in GO that a student will hold, but there are situations that may arise that cause a student to alter or modify their GO.

The fourth approach when defining GO is the mental framework method. Strage (1997) showed that depending on an individual's view of intelligence that individual may adopt different attitudes, beliefs, cognitions etc. that align with different GOs, such as mastery-oriented or achievement-oriented.

The final approach to defining GO is the beliefs method. While slightly similar to the previous approach, the beliefs method focuses on the individual's self-efficacious beliefs when relating to the ability to attain a certain goal. Hertenstein (2001) states that the important determinants of GO for a person is the fact of whether that person believes that he or she should please others, or believes in attaining competence in ability.

Measurement concerns and current methods[edit]

One of the more vocal criticisms of the GO literature reflects ambiguities that result from methodological inconsistencies in measurement.[23][24] Early research focused on single item measures depicting dichotomous judgments toward either outcome performance or amount of effort to be applied given a particular situation.[25] As described in a comprehensive review of GO within organizational research by Button, Mathieu, & Zajac (1996), other research targeted highly specific situations or populations and based their classification on causal attributions made by participants.[26][27]

Additional concerns with measurement are related to the equivocal results found along GO dimensions. While learning GO-positive performance relationship has enjoyed relatively consistent support, the results of performance orientation are more varied. Depending on how the dimension is defined and measured, researchers have found performance orientation to be related to negative performance,[28] positive performance,[29] as well as unrelated to subsequent performance.[30] Therefore, a lack of consistency in the measurement of GO makes it difficult to ascertain what the scales and measures are actually assessing.

Despite these concerns there are three dominant measures within the literature. The first is Button et al.'s (1996) two-dimensional, 16-item GO scale (i.e., eight items each describing either a performance or learning goal orientation). Over a series of four empirical studies Button and colleagues found consistent construct validity of this scale. The second scale was developed by VandeWalle (1997) and reflects a conceptualization of GO across three dimensions: learning orientation; performance (prove) orientation; and performance (avoid) orientation. Again, a series of studies suggest that the three-factor model displayed convergent and discriminant validity. Elliot & Church (1997) offer a comparable three-dimension scale but focus on the situational aspect of when GO is applied versus the more stable personality-driven perspective of the former two scales.

Manipulations of goal orientation[edit]

Typically, GO represents an internal motivation towards the approach, interpretation, and reaction to goals in an achievement situation. DeShon & Gillespie (2005) provide a comprehensive review of how GO is manipulated in research. Similar to the concerns addressed in the measurement section, there exist analogous issues in the variety of ways GO is manipulated. The vast majority of studies used participant beliefs as the focal point for GO. These studies prompted participants to adopt perspectives that practicing behaviors and skills, and acquiring new knowledge were related to a learning/mastery orientation, while more stable individual difference characteristics such as cognitive ability were related to demonstrating competence in performance orientations.[31][32][33]

Other studies examined GO adoption by providing goals instead of depending on self-set goals by the participants. In these cases, the provided mastery versus performance goals led to associated learning-oriented or competence demonstration performance.[34][35] The final dominant category of studies manipulated the strength of a given situation. To accomplish this, researchers created a variety of environments such as: feelings of competition to trigger performance orientations;[36] the encouragement of making mistakes as a learning process to prompt learning orientations;[37] and even observed subordinates adopting more learning oriented perspectives when paired with leaders who display transformational characteristics.[38]

Future directions[edit]

The conceptual and methodological challenges notwithstanding, most researchers remain optimistic about the current state and potential directions for future GO literature. In addition to coming to a wider professional agreement on the competing dimensions of goal orientation, there exist several avenues for extending the current understanding of this motivational process. As highlighted in their meta-analysis, Payne et al. (2007) recommend examining the moderating impact of task complexity, the amount of time spent on particular tasks, and the difficulty/consistency structure of task demands. Other researchers suggest studying social desirability aspects of GOs to tease apart potential response bias that could result from diverse organizational samples.[39]

Goal Setting Theory[edit]

Motivation theories attempt to address how individuals react when a discrepancy is perceived between one's goals and the current state of the environment. Several common theories of motivation involve goal-directed behavior. The most common of these theories are Goal Setting Theory,[40] a group of theories referred to as "control theories",[41] and Social Cognitive Theory.[42] GST has accumulated a great deal of empirical evidence over the past 35 years.[43] Essentially, individuals exert more effort and thus achieve higher levels of performance on a task when goals are difficult and specific. However, this is only the case when individuals are committed to the goal, believe they can accomplish the goal, and have the requisite skills.[44] Control theories are centered around reduction of goal/environment discrepancies.

According to control theories, when an individual perceives a discrepancy between the current state, some action is taken to reduce the discrepancy. To reduce a goal/environment disparity, individuals may change their behavior (e.g., exert more effort) or change their goal.[45] SCT also predicts that individuals will seek to reduce discrepancies between goals and the state of the environment; however, SCT predicts that individuals will set new and more difficult goals when goal/environment discrepancies have been eliminated.[46] This goal/environment discrepancy production is expected to occur only when individuals believe that they will be able to accomplish their goals in the future, a construct known as self-efficacy.[47]

[48] Cynthia Huffman and Michael J. Houstons article in the Journal of Consumer Research stated Learning that occurs throughout several information acquisition and choice experiences have effects of three factors that may naturally vary in consumer experiences. A consumer's goals, how much the consumer knows about the product's features prior to information acquisition and choice, and the content of feedback received after choice Higher levels of prior feature knowledge result in more accurate knowledge after experience, but, opposing to predictions, subjects with no prior feature knowledge are quite skilled at focusing on their goal in the choice process and at learning goal-appropriate information.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dweck, 1986
  2. ^ Dweck & Elliot, 1983
  3. ^ Payne, Youngcourt, & Beaubien, 2007
  4. ^ Eison, Pollio, & Milton, 1982
  5. ^ Diener & Dweck, 1978, 1980
  6. ^ Dweck, 1986
  7. ^ Dweck & Elliot, 1983
  8. ^ Brown, 2001
  9. ^ Cannon-Bowers, Rhodenizer, Salas, & Bowers, 1998
  10. ^ Kozlowski et al., 2001
  11. ^ Coad & Berry, 1998
  12. ^ VanderWalle, Brown, Cron & Slocum, 1999
  13. ^ Bunderson & Sutcliffe, 2003
  14. ^ Button, Mathieu, & Zajac, 1996
  15. ^ DeShon & Gillespie, 2005
  16. ^ Payne et al., 2007
  17. ^ DeShon & Gillespie 2005
  18. ^ VandeWalle 1997
  19. ^ Elliot & Harackiewicz 1996
  20. ^ Elliot & Harackiewicz
  21. ^ Elliot & McGregor, 1999
  22. ^ VandeWalle, 1997
  23. ^ Elliot & Thrash, 2002
  24. ^ Grant & Dweck, 2003
  25. ^ Ames & Archer, 1987
  26. ^ Diener & Dweck, 1978, 1980
  27. ^ Stipek & Kowalski, 1989
  28. ^ Ford, Smith, Weissbein, Gully, & Salas, 1998
  29. ^ Tenebaum, Hall, Calcagnini, Lange, Freeman, & Lloyd, 2001
  30. ^ Button et al., 1996
  31. ^ Steele-Johnson, Beauregard, Hoover, & Schmidt, 2000
  32. ^ Wang & Takeuchi, 2007
  33. ^ Wood & Bandura, 1989
  34. ^ Barron & Harackiewicz, 2001
  35. ^ Elliot & Harackiewicz, 1997
  36. ^ Morf, Weir, & Davidov, 2000
  37. ^ Martocchio, 1994
  38. ^ Coad & Berry, 1998
  39. ^ Button et al., 1996
  40. ^ (GST; Locke & Latham, 1990; 2002)
  41. ^ (e.g., Carver & Scheier, 1998; Powers, 1973; 1991)
  42. ^ (SCT; Bandura, 1986; 1997)
  43. ^ (Locke & Latham, 2002)
  44. ^ (Locke & Latham, 2002)
  45. ^ (Carver & Scheier, 1998
  46. ^ (Bandura, 1986, 1997; Bandura & Locke, 2003)
  47. ^ (Bandura, 1986, 1997)
  48. ^ Journal of Consumer Research, Sep 1, 1993, Vol. 2, Issue. 2, p190-207, 18p 00935301


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