Goals Definition

Goals are a form of self-regulation adopted by humans to achieve specific aims. By focusing people’s attention, goals facilitate responses that are compatible with people’s objectives. Although the behavior of lower animals is controlled by biological mechanisms, human functioning is more flexible. Humans have the ability to regulate their responses beyond biologically based propensities. Goals represent one form of self-regulation common in people’s daily lives.

While the specific content of people’s goals vary considerably, a number of features have been identified by psychologists as common to all goals.

Mental idea

GoalsGoals are mental ideas, or cognitive representations, meaning that they are based in the mind. Consequently, goals can only be inferred, rather than observed. Furthermore, goals are restricted to animals that use their mind in the process of regulation. The actions of plant life, therefore, are not seen as goal-directed behavior. A blossoming rose bush, for example, is simply reacting to the conditions in its environment. It responds by reflex alone. By the same token, physiological functions in humans, such as digestion or blood circulation, are not viewed as goal-directed for a similar reason. These functions are carried out automatically, without any thought regarding the future.


When engaging in goal-directed behavior, people take into account future events, behaving in ways that either facilitate or prevent their occurrence. Goal-directed behavior, therefore, does not simply entail an immediate response to a stimulus. Flinching in response to a loud noise, for example, would not constitute goal-directed behavior. Of central importance is the role of a mental image of a future possibility that influences present behavior.


Goal commitment refers to the degree to which a person is dedicated to following through on his or her objective. It is only when an individual commits to some action that a goal is adopted. However, not all goals are committed to equally. Level of commitment may vary considerably, and this variability has important implications for effort, persistence, and absorption in the goal pursuit process. While goal commitment requires a conscious decision, once in place, goals may be activated thorough an automatic process, influencing behavior outside an individual’s conscious awareness.

Approach or Avoidance

All goals can be categorized as one of two types: approach-focused or avoidance-focused. Approach goals center on the pursuit of a positive outcome, such as scoring above a 90 on a math test. In contrast, avoidance goals center on the evasion of a negative outcome, for example, scoring below a 90 on a math test. In both cases, the content of the goal is the same. However, the psychological framing differs, which has important implication for the way goals are experienced.

History and Background

Goals have been present throughout the history of psychological thought. Aristotle is often regarded as the first truly psychological thinker, and his writings make clear reference to the goal-directed nature of behavior. For Aristotle, behavior is always purposeful, and imagined future states are viewed as having an important influence on human action. Aristotle used the work of a sculptor creating a statue to illustrate this notion of purpose and directedness. Standing before a block of marble, the sculptor has an idea of what is wanted at the end of the sculpting process. It is this imagined end state that is thought to determine the way that the marble is chiseled as the sculptor produces the statue.

Friedrich Herbart is commonly viewed as the first scholar to advocate for a scientific analysis of mental representations, citing goal-relevant explanations for human behavior. Several of Herbart’s contemporaries also made mention of goal-relevant notions, but their main interest was simply in detailing the nature of mental activity.

Goals remained on the periphery of the psychological literature throughout the latter part of the 19th and (very) beginning of the 20th century. When goal-relevant expressions did appear, the term end was typically used, or, on occasion, aim or object. It is in the work of the Wurzburg school that goals came to the fore in psychological theorizing and received sustained conceptual and empirical attention.

With the rise of behaviorism in the second decade of the 20th century, however, mental processes, including goals, began to be seen as outside the scope of a scientific psychology. During this time a shift occurred, in which psychology sought to limit itself to observable behavior. Internal mental events such as goals were considered unobservable and, therefore, unscientific.

With time, however, psychologists questioned this viewpoint. Edward Tolman was among the first to do so, observing that behavior “reeks with purpose.” As a behaviorist, Tolman sought to account for the seemingly goal-seeking nature of behavior, while continuing to rely on observable behavior. In doing so, he defined goal-object as the object or situation toward which, or away from which, the organism moved. Tolman’s contributions are important in that they helped retain a central place for the goals in psychology, demonstrating that behaviorism and goal constructs were not necessarily incompatible.

A contemporary of Tolman, Kurt Lewin, developed an elaborate, dynamic analysis of behavior that was unabashedly goal-based. Lewin attempted to construct an extensive theoretical account of behavior by focusing on the goals toward or away from which behavior was directed. That is, Lewin thought of goals as the positively or negatively valenced activities or objects that attract or repel the person, respectively.

By the 1930s, the goal construct had come into its own in the psychological literature. The word goal was commonplace and was used as a scientific term to describe or explain psychological phenomena. Most subsequent work focused on introducing specific variations of goal constructs or applying the goal construct to the study of various motivational issues.

One additional development is particularly noteworthy: the emergence, in the late 1940s through the early 1960s, of a cybernetic portrait of goal-directed behavior. Cybernetic models use machines as a metaphor for the way goals operate. Thermostats provide a useful illustration. A thermostat has a target temperature (a goal) and regulates its behavior according to this target. The way a thermostat operates is by continuously comparing its current temperature to a target temperature, and if a discrepancy is detected, heat is turned on until the discrepancy is eliminated. Proponents of cybernetic models posit that people possess representations of standards (viewed as goals) for their behavior, and these standards are part of a psychological mechanism that is used to regulate their behavior. Much like a thermostat, one’s current behavior is compared to one’s standard, and if a discrepancy is detected, corrective action is taken until the discrepancy is eliminated.

Achievement Goals

Achievement goals refer to people’s intentions within situations in which the level of competence is assessed. Achievement goals have received a good deal of attention within psychology and are generally distinguished on two levels, each having to do with the way competence is evaluated. The first level has to do with how competence is defined, and the second level has to do with how competence is valenced.

Competence is defined by one’s standard for success. There are three possible standards: an absolute standard (i.e., performance compared to the demands of a task), an intrapersonal standard (i.e., performance compared to one’s past performance or maximum possible performance), and an interpersonal, normative standard (i.e., performance compared to others). Within the achievement literature, both absolute and intrapersonal standards are presently collapsed together within a “mastery goal” category, and normative standards are placed within a “performance goal” category.

Competence is valenced by whether it is focused on a positive possibility that one would like to approach (success) or a negative possibility that one would like to avoid (failure). That is, regardless of one’s standard for success, goals can either be approach-focused or avoidance-focused.

Combining the definition and valence aspects of competence, psychologists have identified a total of four basic achievement goal categories that are presumed to cover all competence-based strivings. Mastery-approach goals represent striving to approach absolute or intrapersonal competence, for example, striving to improve a tennis serve to the best of one’s ability. Mastery-avoidance goals represent striving to avoid absolute or intrapersonal incompetence, for example, striving not to serve worse than in the past. Performance-approach goals represent striving to approach interpersonal competence, for example, striving to serve better than others. Performance-avoidance goals represent striving to avoid interpersonal incompetence, for example, striving to avoid serving worse than others.

Achievement goals are thought to have an important impact on the way people engage in achievement activities. Broadly stated, mastery-approach and performance-approach goals are predicted to lead to adaptive behavior and positive outcomes (e.g., mastery-approach goals optimally facilitate creativity and continuing interest, while performance-approach goals optimally facilitate performance attainment). Mastery-avoidance and, especially, performance-avoidance goals, on the other hand, are predicted to lead to maladaptive behavior and negative outcomes, such as selecting easy instead of optimally challenging tasks, quitting when difficulty or failure is encountered, and poor performance attainment.

While achievement goals outline the specific aim and direction of people’s competence pursuits, they do not explain why people adopt particular types of achievement goals in the first place. According to the hierarchical model of approach-avoidance achievement motivation, personality factors (such as achievement needs, implicit theories of ability, and general competence perceptions) account for differences in achievement goal adoption.

Achievement needs (or motives) may be used as an illustrative example. Two types of achievement needs have been identified: the need for achievement (the tendency to experience pride upon success) and fear of failure (the tendency to experience shame upon failure). Both of these personality factors influence goal adoption in achievement settings. The need for achievement has been shown to lead to mastery-approach and performance-approach goals, whereas fear of failure has been shown to lead to mastery-avoidance and performance-avoidance goals. Fear of failure has also been shown to lead to performance-approach goals, a need-goal combination that represents an active striving toward success to avoid failure (i.e., active avoidance).

Worth noting is the fact that need for achievement and fear of failure do not directly influence performance in achievement settings. Rather, their influence is indirect. According to the hierarchical model of approach-avoidance achievement motivation, needs influence goal adoption, and it is goal adoption that to leads to differences in achievement outcomes.

Social Goals

Recent work has applied the approach-avoidance distinction to goals in the social domain. According to the hierarchical model of approach-avoidance social motivation, hope for affiliation and fear of rejection are personality factors that influence the degree to which people are motivated to pursue certain goals in their relationships. Social-approach goals (e.g., trying to deepen one’s relationships) and social-avoidance goals (e.g., trying to avoid conflict in one’s relationships) direct individuals toward potential positive relational outcomes or away from potential negative relational outcomes, respectively. Research on approach and avoidance social goals is just beginning, but the results to date indicate that social-approach goals lead to positive relational events and high relationship satisfaction, whereas social-avoidance goals lead to negative relational events and a higher level of loneliness.

Personal Goals

Personal goals provide another manifestation of the goal construct, referring to the consciously embraced, personally meaningful objectives that individuals pursue in their daily lives. This type of goal has been presented in several different ways, most notably as personal projects, personal strivings, possible selves, and current concerns. Personal goal is meant as a generic equivalent of these methods.

Personal goals are commonly measured by having individuals write short statements indicating what they are trying to do in their daily lives. The manner in which individuals present their goals lexically is thought to correspond to the way that the goal is represented in memory and, accordingly, the way that the goal is utilized in daily regulation. That is, the precise wording that individuals use in listing their personal goals is neither random nor accidental. Rather, it is thought to carry precise information as to the structure and psychological meaning of the goal.

As with any type of goal, a personal goal may be approach or avoidant in nature. Indeed, nearly any possibility that an individual may focus on in daily life may be framed as a positive possibility that he or she is trying to move toward or maintain, or a negative possibility that he or she is trying to move away from or stay away from. For example, a person may articulate his or her goals as “trying to do well in school” and “trying to be respectful toward my mother” or, alternatively, as “trying to avoid doing poorly in school” and “trying not to be disrespectful toward my mother.”

The pursuit of avoidance goals has typically been found to result in negative consequences. The focus on negative possibilities inherent in avoidance goal regulation leads to a host of processes that are harmful to the individual’s goal attainment, psychological adjustment, and physical health. Such processes are broad in scope and include perceptual processes (e.g., interpreting information as a threat), attentional processes (e.g., heightened sensitivity to and vigilance for negative information), mental control processes (e.g., difficulty concentrating and sustaining focus), memory processes (e.g., biased search for and recall of negative information), emotional processes (e.g., anxiety and worry), volitional processes (e.g., feeling internally forced or obligated to expend effort), and behavioral processes (e.g., escaping or selecting oneself out of goal-relevant situations).

Using negative possibilities as the hub of goal regulation is also presumed to be inefficient and ineffective, as it provides the individual with something to move away from but not something to move toward, and it does not afford the person a clear sense of progress. Indeed, even if one succeeds at an avoidance goal, one simply experiences the absence of a negative outcome, not the presence of a positive outcome that is needed to satisfy the individual’s psychological and physical needs. While avoidance goals are not necessarily always expected to have detrimental consequences, in the main they are expected to produce negative processes that eventuate in negative psychological outcomes.


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