On Having a Goal: Goals as Representations or Behavior

By Ramnero, Jonas; Torneke, Niklas | The Psychological Record, March 2015 | Go to article overview

On Having a Goal: Goals as Representations or Behavior


Ramnero, Jonas, Torneke, Niklas, The Psychological Record


To "have a goal" is probably a universal experience in language-able humans, and the custom of talking about one's goals is a commonplace behavior in everyday conversation. Future goals tend to be ascribed significant value, on a personal basis, and goal-oriented behavior almost seems to delineate the complexity of human responding in comparison with that of other species. Clinicians who reside within a behavioral tradition are trained to emphasize clear and tangible goals in treatment. This approach seems to make a lot of sense to patients, students, and clinicians. Individuals are in a sense impregnated with the idea that their personal goals are pivotal in terms of forming a valuable life. From a theoretical point of view, the concept of goals has also acquired a central role in psychology as a means of explaining behavior. This role dates back to the 1960s, when the dramatic shift toward cognitive theories occurred and the concept of needs was replaced by the concept of goals as a dominant motivational concept (Deci and Ryan 2000).

At the same time, there is a relative paucity of behavior-analytic accounts of goal-directed behavior. This situation may not be very surprising in that goals (as humans tend to perceive them) are temporarily located in a future yet to exist. The commonsense term goal-directed behavior thereby seems to defy experimental logic, where causes must precede the behavior to be explained, and the term thereby runs into problems within a psychological framework that stresses experimentally verified principles. Behavior analysis emphasizes clear variables that are amenable to deliberate influence in order to pave the way for scientific progress in areas where the language of folk psychology is dominant. Outside the behavior-analytic tradition, the concept of goals is used extensively, and, as it seems, with good reason. The empirical research that has emanated from the concept of goals does seem to delineate something of vital importance to human beings. Before we attempt to articulate a behavioral conceptualization of goal-directed behavior, we will go through some of the research on goals of particular relevance for clinical practice. In order to do that, we will momentarily set aside the definitional issues and instead rely on the reader's commonsense understanding of the term goal, and then return to the problems inherent in the commonsense notion of having a goal.

An Overview of Empirical Findings on Goals

Goals as Related to Personal Functioning

A number of basic conceptual dimensions regarding goals have been proposed and have generated interesting empirical findings. A distinction often made is that between intrinsic and extrinsic goals (Kasser and Ryan 1993, 1996). Intrinsic goals are those pertaining to affiliation, personal growth, and community contribution, which are assumed to be closely related to the satisfaction of what Kasser and Ryan referred to as basic human needs, whereas extrinsic goals are those concerning the attainment of wealth, fame, and factors more related to external signs of worth. Extrinsic goals are assumed to be less related to basic-need satisfaction and may even distract from this process. The literature is replete with studies stating that having clear and valued goals is related to positive psychological functioning (e.g., Brunstein 1993; Emmons 1992; Sheldon and Elliot 1999). What would be labeled as an orientation toward extrinsic rather than intrinsic goals has been shown to be associated with increased risk on variables such as the use of tobacco and drugs (Williams et al. 2000). Furthermore, endorsement of extrinsic goals, in comparison with intrinsic goals, tends to be correlated with depression, anxiety, and negative affect among other variables (Kasser and Ryan 1993, 1996). People who report an extrinsic goal orientation also tend to report having been raised with less nurturing child-raising styles--that is, styles that are more controlling than supportive (Kasser et al. …

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