Self-Regulation Theory

The term self-regulation refers to a complex and dynamic set of processes involved in setting and pursuing goals. It is commonly used to refer to a broad set of theories that seek to describe, explain, and predict these goal-directed processes. Although many theories of self-regulation exist, each proposing some unique characteristics, researchers generally agree on several fundamental features of self-regulation.

Goals and Goal Setting

The most fundamental aspect of self-regulation theory is the idea that much of human behavior is directed toward accomplishing goals. Indeed, it is the pursuit of goals that forms the focus of much of self-regulation theory. The term goal takes on a fairly broad meaning in this context, referring to desired future states that individuals wish to attain.

Goals can differ from one another in many ways. For example, they may be assigned by others (e.g., by one’s supervisor), they may be self-set by the individual, or they may be determined by some combination of the two (e.g., participatively set). Goals can vary in both difficulty and specificity, as well as content. They can be near-term (proximal) goals or long-term (distal) goals. Goals can even vary in the extent to which one is consciously aware that the goal is guiding behavior. All of these characteristics have important influences on cognition, affect, and behavior.

One of the most consistent findings (although it is not without exception) is that difficult, specific goals often result in high levels of performance. Although this finding has great practical benefit by itself, self-regulation theorists seek to understand precisely how, when, and why such goal-setting effects are obtained. This increased understanding of goal-related processes provides valuable information about how motivational interventions can best be implemented.

Feedback and Self-Monitoring

Feedback plays a critical role in self-regulatory processes. In this context, feedback refers to information concerning an individual’s progress toward attaining a goal. By comparing feedback to goals, an individual can determine the level of success he or she is having in pursuing the goal. If the feedback indicates that he or she is not making sufficient progress, then changes are often undertaken, such as investing more effort, trying different approaches to meet the goal, or even abandoning the goal altogether.

Feedback need not come from outside sources (e.g., one’s supervisor)—indeed, such external feedback is often unavailable. Thus, individuals often rely on self-monitoring to evaluate their progress toward achieving their goals. Unfortunately, individuals are notoriously flawed in making such self-evaluations, typically perceiving their progress to be better than it really is. As a result, without sufficiently frequent and specific external feedback, individuals often make poor decisions in the pursuit of their goals, such as investing less time and effort than is truly necessary for success and persisting with ineffective strategies.

Goal Hierarchies

Most theories of self-regulation propose that goals are arranged hierarchically in a series of means-ends relationships. For example, a car salesperson may have a goal to obtain a pay raise. To accomplish this goal, the individual must get a positive performance evaluation from his or her supervisor during the annual performance appraisal. To get a positive evaluation, he or she must sell at least eight new cars per month, and so on.

The importance of goals higher up in the hierarchy can determine how committed individuals are to particular goals lower in the hierarchy. For example, if a student is seeking an A grade in a psychology course because he or she sees it as a necessary step toward fulfilling a lifelong dream of getting into graduate school, his or her commitment to obtaining the grade is likely to be very high.

Goal hierarchies are highly complex. Rather than having a strict one-to-one relationship between higher-level and lower-level goals, a higher-level goal, or end, can often be obtained by achieving several alternative, lower-level goals, or means (i.e., equifinality—”all roads lead to Rome”). Likewise, a given lower-level goal or means can often serve many higher-level goals or ends (i.e., multifinality—”kill two birds with one stone”). Goal hierarchies are also highly individualized. Each individual’s hierarchy may be distinct and change over time. Some theorists postulate that an important determinant of individual personality is the goals that exist (or the relative importance of such goals) near the top of their hierarchy.

Approach versus Avoidance Goals

Up to this point, goals have been described as future states that individuals wish to attain. Such goals are often referred to as approach goals because individuals seek to move toward these states. However, avoidance goals are also powerful influences on behavior, representing undesired future states that individuals wish to avoid. For a variety of reasons, the self-regulatory processes resulting from approach and avoidance goals differ in subtle but very important ways.

One important way in which approach and avoidance goals differ is in the affect (i.e., emotions) that arises from successful and unsuccessful pursuit. In short, success at an approach goal often leads to excitement or elation, whereas success at an avoidance goal often leads to relief or relaxation. Failure at an approach goal often leads to sadness or depression, whereas failure at an avoidance goal often leads to anxiety or nervousness. Because emotions can have important influences on the way individuals perceive and react to the world around them, the distinction between approach and avoidance self-regulation is of great practical importance.


Despite the vast insights and many practical applications that have emerged from the research on self-regulation, researchers are only just beginning to understand all of the implications of this complex, dynamic, and individualized process. Nonetheless, it appears clear that the implications are many, and increased understanding in this area will likely yield further improvements in effectiveness in the workplace and beyond.


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