Achievement Goal Theory

Achievement  goals  refer  to  the  aim,  purpose,  or focus  of  a  person’s  achievement  behavior.  These goals  are  dynamic  cognitive  entities  representing future-based  possibilities  that  respond  to  changes in the person as well as the situation. They do not refer strictly to the level of aspired performance (as in  the  goal-setting  literature)  but,  rather,  to  how people evaluate their competence or incompetence and orient their behavior accordingly. Achievement goal  theory  has  emphasized  the  role  of  achievement goals in regulating a wide variety of affective, behavioral,  and  cognitive  outcomes  during  people’s competence pursuits. More recently, research on  achievement  goal  theory  has  developed  the hierarchical  model  of  achievement  motivation, which integrates a variety of achievement motivation theories. This entry defines key constructs in achievement  goal  theory,  reviews  major  models of  achievement  goals,  reviews  the  consequences of  different  achievement  goals,  and  explains  how achievement goals have been integrated with other theoretical approaches in the hierarchical model of achievement motivation.

Key Constructs in Achievement Goal Theory

Achievement goal theory posits three major explanatory  constructs:  states  of  goal  involvement,  goal orientations,  and  goal  climates.  A  person’s  state of achievement goal involvement reflects the aim, purpose,  or  focus  of  the  achievement  behavior  in a specific context at a particular moment in time. States  of  goal  involvement  can  change  over  time, so  it  is  very  important  to  understand  their  contextual and temporal frame of reference. The narrower and more specific the frame of reference, the closer the construct will be to the theoretical conception of a goal as a dynamic cognitive entity. The predictive  power  of  states  of  involvement  varies based on the correspondence between the frame of reference for the goal and the outcome. For example, goals for today’s practice session will be more effective at predicting outcomes in today’s practice than in predicting outcomes over the course of the 6 months ahead. Unfortunately, research on states of achievement goal involvement is limited, in part because of the challenges associated with assessing goals in relevant performance contexts repeatedly over time.

achievement-goal-theory-sports-psychologyAn  individual’s  achievement  goal  orientation reflects  one’s  typical  state  of  achievement  goal involvement  over  time  within  a  particular  context.  Goal  orientations  can  be  thought  of  as  the central  tendency  of  a  distribution  representing a  person’s  states  of  involvement  for  an  activity sampled  repeatedly  over  time.  Goal  orientations are thought to be more stable than states of goal involvement   because   they   are   contextually— but  not  temporally—specific.  Goal  orientations emerged as a preferred level of analysis in achievement  goal  research  because  they  can  be  assessed via  self-reports  on  a  single  occasion  and  do  not require repeated assessment to capture a process.

Despite the relative ease of assessing goal orientations,  a  noteworthy  limitation  of  this  construct is that it cannot distinguish goal-based variability from variability associated with other stable individual  differences  (e.g.,  motives).  For  example,  a person who has a strong fear of failure will tend to adopt  some  achievement  goals  more  than  others, and  the  difference  between  fear  of  failure-based variability  and  variation  due  to  the  actual  aim, purpose,  or  focus  of  that  person’s  achievement behavior is blurred. Likewise, goal orientation ratings  may  be  tainted  by  situational  factors  at  the time  the  measure  is  completed.  Notwithstanding these  limitations,  the  achievement  goal  orientation  construct  has  provided  a  very  accessible entry point for testing the propositions of achievement  goal  theory,  and  the  vast  majority  of  the research on achievement goals has focused on goal orientations.

Finally, achievement goal climates represent the situational cues that lead people to adopt different states of involvement. Joyce Epstein proposed a set of  TARGET  structures  within  achievement  contexts, which influence the goals that people adopt. This model is derived from research on academic achievement  motivation  but  also  provides  a  rich conceptual  framework  for  dissecting  the  motivational climate in physical activity settings.

The  TARGET  acronym  stands  for  the  task, authority,  recognition,  grouping,  evaluation,  and timing  structures  in  a  particular  situation.  Task structures  refer  to  the  type  of  task  that  people are working on. Tasks that are perceived as challenging  will  evoke  different  goals  than  tasks  that are  perceived  as  repetitive  and  boring.  Authority refers to how decisions were made about the task. Activities  that  are  perceived  as  more  autonomously  selected  by  participants  evoke  different goals than those that are selected by leaders such as  coaches  or  teachers.  Recognition  refers  to  the procedures  used  to  recognize  performers’  accomplishments. Praise and criticism that are provided privately  evoke  different  goals  than  similar  feedback  that  is  provided  publicly.  Grouping  refers to whether participants are assigned to groups of similar  or  diverse  ability  levels.  Groups  formed with  the  intention  of  having  a  diverse  range  of abilities evoke different goals than groups formed with  the  intention  of  creating  status  differences between  groups.  Evaluation  describes  how  participants’ competence is evaluated and recognized. Evaluations  that  emphasize  improvement  evoke different  goals  than  evaluations  that  emphasize normative comparisons. Timing refers to whether the time demands promote a focus on learning or immediate  performance.  It  is  worth  noting  that the perceived motivational climate (i.e., TARGET structures) may differ from an objective assessment of the motivational climate. As in other social cognitive approaches, it is the perceived climate that is held to influence states of goal involvement.

Structure of Achievement Goals

The  structure  of  and  terminology  for  describing achievement goals have evolved considerably over the past 3 decades. Goals were originally proposed to  account  for  differences  between  mastery  and helpless  responses  to  failure.  People  who  exhibited  a  mastery  response  to  failure  (i.e.,  attributions  to  low  effort,  increased  persistence,  greater enjoyment,  and  enhanced  problem  solving)  were thought  to  exhibit  this  response  because  they focused  on  learning  and  improving.  In  contrast, people who exhibited a helpless response to failure (i.e.,  attributions  to  low  ability,  decreased  persistence,  less  enjoyment,  and  reduced  problem  solving) were thought to exhibit this response because they focused on protecting themselves from undesirable social comparisons. These goals became the focus  of  the  dichotomous  model  of  achievement goals.

Dichotomous Achievement Goals

The  dichotomous  model  of  achievement  goals emphasizes two primary definitions of competence. Task  goals  emphasize  learning  and  improving, whereas  ego  goals  emphasize  outperforming  others. Task and ego goals have also been referred to as mastery–learning and performance–competitive goals, respectively.

Based  on  research  in  sport  and  physical  education  contexts,  task  goal  orientations  are  associated  with  greater  enjoyment,  interest,  pleasant emotional  experiences,  prosocial  behavior,  commitment,  perceived  improvement,  intrinsic  motivation,  moral  functioning,  life  satisfaction,  and satisfaction with coaching and competitive results. Ego  goals  are  associated  with  consequences  such as  anxiety,  worry,  competitiveness,  public  self-consciousness,  motivation  for  social  status  and recognition,  extrinsic  motivation,  hypercompetitive  attitudes,  and  antisocial  behavior.  Relations between  dichotomous  goal  orientations  and  perceived competence are more equivocal in the literature and require further attention. Both task and ego goal orientations positively predict perceptions of task and ego goal climates, respectively.

Goal  climates  have  also  been  linked  with  a number of affective, behavioral, and cognitive outcomes. This literature has emphasized the distinction between mastery (i.e., task) and performance (i.e., ego) motivational climates without attending much  to  the  approach–avoidance  distinction  that became the focus in subsequent extensions of the goals model. It has also focused on physical education  settings.  Compared  with  control  groups and groups exposed to performance goal climates, interventions  that  created  mastery  goal  climates in physical education classes have been associated with  more  positive  attitudes  toward  the  activity, greater  enjoyment,  increased  health  and  fitness, improved  skill,  lower  anxiety,  and  greater  use  of effective learning strategies compared with performance goal climates.

Trichotomous Achievement Goals

The  trichotomous  model  of  achievement  goals was  noted  as  a  possibility  in  early  writing  on  the dichotomous  model  of  goals  but  only  received empirical attention in the 1990s when it was used to explain an inconsistent finding in the literature. Specifically,  relations  between  performance  (or ego) goals and intrinsic motivation varied considerably, from negative to nil, across studies. Scholars posited that these goals had no influence on intrinsic motivation when they were approach oriented but  reduced  intrinsic  motivation  when  they  were avoidance oriented. This hypothesis was supported by a meta-analysis of existing studies and a series of experiments. Subsequent research has identified a number of other variables with different relations to performance goals depending on whether those goals  are  approach  or  avoidance  oriented.  Thus, the  trichotomous  model  of  achievement  goals includes  mastery  goals,  performance–approach goals,  and  performance–avoidance  goals.  These goals reflect aims of learning and improving, outperforming others, and not being outperformed by others, respectively.

In  the  physical  domain,  the  added  value  of distinguishing   performance–approach   from performance–avoidance  goals  in  physical  activity was  established  in  experimental  research.  These studies manipulated the instructions given to participants  to  induce  particular  goals.  Participants who  received  mastery  or  performance–approach goals  exhibited  greater  intrinsic  motivation  than participants who received performance–avoidance goals,  and  these  relations  were  not  due  to  differences in perceived competence. The latter finding was particularly important because early critics of expanding the dichotomous model of achievement goals  speculated  that  the  approach–avoidance distinction  was  simply  a  reflection  of  differences in  perceived  competence—a  hypothesis  that  was clearly  refuted  by  these  studies.  These  findings were  instrumental  for  introducing  the  approach– avoidance  dimension  to  achievement  goal  theory in physical activity.

2×2 Model of Achievement Goals

Shortly  after  the  introduction  of  the  trichotomous  model  of  achievement  goals,  the  model was  expanded  to  a  fully  symmetric  2×2  model of  achievement  goals.  This  model  outlined  four possible  achievement  goals  based  on  (a)  the  definition  of  competence  and  (b)  the  valence  of  the competence-based  incentive.  The  two  levels  for definitions of competence were consistent with the dichotomous  and  trichotomous  models.  Mastery goals defined competence in reference to the self or absolute standards, and performance goals defined competence  in  reference  to  normative  standards. The  two  competence-based  possibilities  that  orient people’s behavior in achievement situations are success (which people typically approach) and failure (which people typically avoid).

A 2×2 taxonomy emerges from the combination of  the  definition  of  competence  with  the  valence of  the  incentive.  The  performance–approach  and performance–avoidance goals in this model mirror those  goals  in  the  trichotomous  model.  Mastery goals from the trichotomous model are specified as mastery–approach  goals  in  the  2×2  model.  These goals involve striving to improve or execute a skill as it should be executed (i.e., selfand absolutely referenced  competence,  respectively,  with  a  focus on being successful). The new addition to the 2×2 model  involves  mastery–avoidance  goals,  which describe  strivings  not  to  have  one’s  skills  deteriorate or not to make mistakes (i.e., selfand absolutely  referenced  competence,  respectively,  with  a focus on not failing). One of the major objectives for  researchers  interested  in  the  2×2  model  over the  past  decade  has  involved  evaluating  whether the added complexity of this model is warranted in relation to increases in predictive power. Following is  a  summary  of  bivariate  relations  between  each goal and a variety of affect, behavioral, and cognitive consequences in physical activity; this summary  does  not  account  for  any  overlap  between goals due to a shared definition of competence or valence.

Mastery–approach goals have been linked with affective  consequences  such  as  heightened  enjoyment  and  positive  affect,  and  reduced  boredom. Behaviorally,   these   goals   are   associated   with increased  fitness,  perceived  exercise  intensity, physical  activity  participation  and,  in  some  studies, even performance (typically in timed races or similar  tasks).  They  have  also  been  linked  with reduced   self-handicapping.   From   a   cognitive standpoint,  mastery–approach  goals  have  been linked  with  (a)  greater  meta-cognitive  regulation, relative autonomy, intrinsic motivation, perceived usefulness  and  importance  of  the  activity,  effort, tolerance,  help-seeking,  situational  interest,  satisfaction, intentions to continue in sport, preferences for the activity, and utility value, and (b) reduced amotivation.

Mastery–avoidance  goals  have  been  linked with   mixed   affective   consequences   such   as increased enjoyment and increased negative affect. Behaviorally,   these   goals   are   associated   with increased  fitness,  shuttle  run  performance,  and self-reported intensity of activity. From a cognitive standpoint,  mastery–avoidance  goals  have  been linked with stronger preference for the activity, tolerance,  effort,  physical  activity  participation,  and intentions to participate in sport.

Performance–approach  goals  have  been  linked with  affective  consequences,  such  as  increased enjoyment  and  positive  affect,  and  decreased boredom.  Behaviorally,  these  goals  are  associated with  physical  activity  and  performance  (typically in timed races or similar tasks). From a cognitive standpoint,  performance–approach  goals  have been  linked  with  greater  meta-cognitive  regulation,  effort,  introjected  and  external  regulation, intentions  to  participate  in  sport,  value  (intrinsic and utility), and satisfaction.

Performance–avoidance goals have been linked with  affective  consequences  such  as  increased enjoyment and negative affect as well as decreased boredom.  Behaviorally,  these  goals  are  associated with fitness, self-handicapping, and physical activity  participation.  From  a  cognitive  standpoint, performance–avoidance   goals   are   associated with  interest;  identified,  introjected,  or  external regulation; and intentions to continue in sport as well as decreased satisfaction with sport.

Even  a  cursory  review  of  this  list  reveals  that some  outcomes  (e.g.,  enjoyment)  are  associated with  all  four  goals  in  the  same  way.  This  finding reflects, at least in part, the overlap between goals. It  also  suggests  that  a  general  achievement  goal profile  elevation  may  be  contaminating  some  of these  results,  that  is,  people  may  be  high  or  low in  all  goals  because  of  some  other  factor  such  as the  importance  of  the  domain  to  them.  Shifting the focus of future research from achievement goal orientations  to  states  of  involvement  will  help  to resolve  this  issue.  Notwithstanding  this  limitation, clear nomological networks for each goal are emerging. Taken as a whole, these findings indicate that  mastery–approach  goals  have  unequivocally desirable  consequences,  and  the  other  goals  have mixed profiles, with performance–approach goals appearing  preferable  to  mastery–avoidance  goals, which  seem  preferable  to  performance–avoidance goals.

Although  the  2×2  model  of  achievement  goals is  fairly  comprehensive,  there  may  be  reasons  to make  further  distinctions  between  goals.  For example, scholars have debated the merits of differentiating between mastery goals based on a selfreferenced  definition  of  competence  and  mastery goals based on a task-referenced definition of competence. Any such expansions of the 2×2 model of achievement goals must ensure that the new goals are grounded in competence-based incentives and must demonstrate that the explanatory or predictive power of the new goals is sufficient to offset the added complexity of the model.

Hierarchical Model of Achievement Motivation

The hierarchical model of achievement goals was proposed  at  the  beginning  of  the  21st  century  to integrate the classic, motive-based approaches and contemporary, goal-based approaches to studying achievement  motivation.  This  model  posits  goals as the proximal regulators of affect, behavior, and cognition during competence pursuits. It also proposes that many established achievement motivation  constructs  in  other  approaches  predispose people to adopt certain goals. These goal antecedents include achievement motives, self-related constructs  (e.g.,  perceived  competence,  self-theories of  ability),  neurophysiological  predispositions, and the motivational climate in a given situation.

For  example,  mastery–approach  goals  are  more likely to be adopted by people with high need for achievement,  perfectionistic  strivings,  perceived competence,  incremental  theories  of  ability,  and approach   motivational   temperaments   and   in situations  that  create  a  mastery  motivational  climate.  In  contrast,  performance–avoidance  goals are  more  likely  to  be  adopted  by  people  with high fear of failure, perfectionistic concerns, entity theories  of  ability,  avoidance  motivational  temperaments, and low perceived competence and in situations that create a performance motivational climate.

One  benefit  of  this  hierarchical,  antecedent– consequence model of achievement goals is that it has  increased  conceptual  precision  in  research  on achievement  goal  theory.  Researchers  now  tend to  differentiate  between  factors  that  lead  to  goal adoption  and  those  that  are  produced  by  goal adoption.  Although  the  vast  majority  of  this  literature  is  nonexperimental  and  does  not  provide a strong basis for causal claims, coherent and logical conceptual articulations of relations within the antecedent–consequence  framework  are  contributing  to  theoretical  clarity.  Another  trend  worth noting in recent literature is a slight increase in the number of longitudinal research studies that investigate how goals fluctuate within people over time. This approach is valuable because it shifts the focus from goal orientations to states of involvement and removes  threats  from  confounding  third  variables that may be antecedents of goals (e.g., fear of failure). Finally, as evidenced by the preceding review, the  majority  of  the  research  on  achievement  goal theory  as  it  relates  to  physical  activity  has  been conducted in the context of sport and physical education.  Exercise  and  rehabilitation  contexts  have received considerably less attention but also involve competence  pursuits  and  therefore  may  be  useful contexts for understanding the role of achievement goals in regulating affect, behavior, and cognition.


In  sum,  achievement  goal  theory  has  developed considerably  since  it  was  first  proposed  over 3  decades  ago.  Extensions  of  the  theory  have met  with  resistance  in  some  quarters,  but  the associated  debates  have  clarified  differences  in assumptions  and  contributed  to  a  more  precise articulation of the theory. The hierarchical model of achievement motivation represents the current

state of the science. It is a significant development because  it  (a)  links  multiple  levels  of  analysis  in motivation  from  the  neurophysiological  to  the social;  (b)  integrates  diverse  theories  of  achievement  motivation;  (c)  differentiates  the  causes  of goals from their effects, at least conceptually; and (d) specifically addresses the factors that energize and orient achievement strivings.


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