Achievement pursuit is more motivating than avoiding failure.
We’ve all had goals to stop doing something in the past. Stop eating too many sweets. Stop smoking. Avoid thinking negatively. But how often does that goal pan out?
Apparently not as much as it could. The research is in on this type of goal, and it’s not very motivating.
A look into goal orientation
Goal orientation theory describes different orientations around goal setting. For achievement, there are two types of goals: Mastery goals and Performance goals. Mastery goals- also known as learning goals- are oriented around learning and involvement in a task. They are focused on development of competence and mastery of the task at hand (i.e. becoming good at a skill or being the best).
The other type of goal is a performance goal, which is separated into two types.
Avoidance vs. Approach
In goal orientation theory, the goal to stop doing something or to avoid a negative outcome is called a performance-avoidance goal. Basically a performance-avoidance goal is any goal that puts you into the mindset to avoid failure or judgment of others. We’re avoiding dropping below expectations.
- Don’t lose.
- Try not to get a D or an F on this exam.
- Try to do better than that guy.
We’re really good at doing this, since most of our development is spent being told what we can’t do.
On the other hand, we have performance-approach goals. A performance-approach goal is focused on directing efforts toward attaining a favorable outcome or judgment in your performance. This means that when you have a performance-approach goal, you’re setting your mind on succeeding at the task at hand.
- Win the game.
- Try to get as many questions as possible correct on this exam.
- Try to get X amount of tasks done today.
Guess which one is better for motivating you to succeed.
In some experiments by Elliot and Harackiewicz (1996), they tested the intrinsic motivation of participants solving hidden word crossword puzzles called Nina puzzles.
In the first experiment, participants were separated into 4 groups:
- Performance goal with a success diagnostic (performance-approach)
- Performance goal with a failure diagnostic (performance-avoidance)
- Performance goal with no diagnostic information provided (performance neutral)
- Mastery goal
The performance-approach group was told that they were being tested to see if they performed exceptionally well compared to the average performer. The performance-avoidance group was told that they were being tested to see if they performed less than the average. The neutral group was only told that they were being tested to see how many they could get. And the mastery group was told that they would receive information regarding how much of the Nina puzzle was solved. After solving the puzzles, the participants were asked how much they enjoyed the activity.
Results showed that only the performance-avoidance group produced negative effects on intrinsic motivation. They gave just as much effort and performed just as well as the other groups, but they enjoyed the activity much less. Striving to avoid failure undermined intrinsic motivation in the performance -avoidance group.
On the other hand, the performance-approach oriented group attempted to achieve successful outcomes displayed intrinsic motivation equivalent to that of those who sought mastery. These orientations had significantly higher levels of intrinsic motivation than those in the performance-avoidance condition.
The neutral condition had levels of interest midway between the performance-approach group and the performance-avoidance group. Being the control, this proved that not only was the performance-avoidance orientation less motivating than the performance-approach group, but it had a negative effect.
A second experiment by Elliot and Harackwiewicz (1996) was designed to replicate the effect from Experiment 1 using more subtle manipulation by social comparison. (Comparing the participant’s results to other people’s) In the experiment, they compared the intrinsic motivation of performance-approach, performance-avoidance, and mastery goals.
In the performance-avoidance group, participants were told that if they scored less than their peers, they would be labeled as having “poor” ability in solving Nina puzzles. The performance-approach group was told that if they scored more than their peers, they would be labeled as having “good” abilities. And the mastery group was test was performed in the same way as the first experiment.
During the experiment, to measure intrinsic motivation, participants were once again asked to report their enjoyment with the task.
Results found that the performance-approach group once again had intrinsic motivation equivalent to the mastery condition. The performance-avoidance group, however, once again reported less enjoyment. It was determined that having a performance-avoidance mindset undermines intrinsic motivations.
Avoiding the avoidance mindset
From these experiments we have learned that both performance-approach and mastery goals have a positive effect on creating intrinsic motivation in a task. Since approach and mastery goals are about attaining competence, it is thought that this focus on achievement creates a drive that causes you to enjoy attempting the tasks and to want more of it. Both engender processes that facilitate task involvement and faster intrinsic motivation:
Perceiving achievement goal setting as a challenge
Encouraging affective and cognitive investment
Facilitating concentration and task absorption
Orienting the individual toward presence of success-relevant mastery-relevant information
Performance-avoidance goals, not so much. The avoidance orientation only puts you into the mindset that you’re trying to avoid incompetence. Because of this, avoidance-oriented individuals are more prone to anxiety in their task, which is contrary to the nature of intrinsic motivation. Anxiety discourages involvement. The reasons why? The researchers describe performance-avoidance orientation as:
Forcing individuals to construe achievement setting as a threat and may try to escape the situation if the option is available.
Encouraging self-protective withdrawal of affective and cognitive resources
Disrupting concentration and involvement
Orienting the individual toward the presence of failure-relevant information
Basically, avoidance is a failure-oriented perspective. Looking for failure can’t lead to success.
Intrinsic motivation is important for maintaining efforts over an extended period of time. If you have long-term goals, or if your required tasks are repeated and monotonous, a performance-approach orientation gives the most motivation and salience, especially when combined with mastery goals.
Elliot, A. J., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (1996). Approach And Avoidance Achievement Goals And Intrinsic Motivation: A Mediational Analysis.. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(3), 461-475.