Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Goal Pursuit: Current State of Affairs and Directions for Future Research

Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Goal Pursuit: Current State of Affairs and Directions for Future Research

Article excerpt

We all have various goals that we are trying to accomplish- lose 10 lbs, stop smoking, find a new job, be kinder to our partner, or finish that paper by the end of the week. Whether these pursuits can be attained within a specific time or are ongoing tasks that need to be maintained across our lives, such goals occupy a large portion of our time and mental energy. Given the centrality of goals in our everyday lives, it is no wonder that goals are studied across a variety of subdisciplines, including (but not limited to) social, personality, organizational, cognitive, health, education, sport, and developmental psychology, as well as allied fields such as behavioral economics and neuroscience. Within these fields, goals have been studied on a variety of different levels, from the speed of button presses or problem solving in a lab setting (e.g., Brandstätter, Lengfelder, & Gollwitzer, 2001; Freitas, Liberman, & Higgins, 2002) to engagement in specific health behaviours (e.g., Gollwitzer & Oettingen, 1998), educational and occupational attainment (e.g., Elliot, McGregor, & Gable, 1999), and navigation of broader life tasks (e.g., Emmons, 1986; Kasser & Ryan, 1996). Although this diversity has certainly led to a variety of notable advancements that help us understand the goal pursuit process, it has also resulted in a fragmented literature that is difficult to reconcile. Despite this issue, one underlying notion that seems to be well agreed upon is that people have multiple personal goals that they are simultaneously motivated to attain. Although such goals can be studied at a variety of levels (e.g., my goal to lose weight can be linked to my broader value of living a healthy life), this review predominantly focuses on personal goals that are pursued in an individual's day-to-day life. Specifically, we will examine the process of goal pursuit from start to finish, including goal setting, goal pursuit and selfregulation, and the outcomes associated with attainment and/or failure. We also address the many aspects of personal goal pursuit that are still poorly understood, highlighting directions for future research.

Personal Goals

The disparate ways in which goals are studied can also be seen in the proliferation of goal definitions (see Elliot & Fryer, 2008, for a review). In the present article, we define a goal as being a cognitive representation of a desired end state that a person is committed to attain. This definition highlights three key components. First, cognitive representation refers to the use of a future-oriented image to make decisions that ultimately guide an individual's behavior. This is a critical distinction to make, as some previous theory and research has equated having a goal with general behavior, innate biological responses (e.g., neurons firing; Austin & Vancouver, 1996), or even going so far as to say, "in some sense, the endpoint of every action, however minute, is a goal" (Beach, 1985, p. 124). By focusing on mental representations, we emphasize that goals are limited to sentient beings and exclude more mechanistic functions (e.g., plants orienting toward sunlight; Elliot & Fryer, 2008). Second, desired end state implies that there is something that an indiMarina vidual wants1 to move toward or attain (whether it is more abstract or concrete). Without this drive, goals would not have any energy to encourage action or sustain motivation and instead we would wander around aimlessly engaging in behaviors without any sense of meaning or purpose. Finally, we draw on the term commitment to further distinguish between goals and wishes and/or fantasies (Gollwitzer, 1990). Underlying the term commitment is intent, without which an individual would not be motivated to move toward the desired end state. Given that we are specifically interested in personal goals that individuals set and pursue in the course of their day-to-day lives, we further define personal goals as those explicitly identified and endorsed by an individual, as opposed to goals either assumed to exist or explicitly assigned by a researcher (e. …

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