Goals and Reasons: Is the whole other than the sum of the parts?

Research has taken two directions in measuring motivation: the achievement goal approach in understanding the ‘what’ individuals want to achieve, and in recent years, the focus on reasons in understanding the ‘why’ individuals want to achieve, mostly derived from the Self-Determination Theory (SDT).

The Achievement Goal Theory (AGT) conceptualizes motivation in a 2X2 model of achievement goals: mastery-approach goals are associated with adaptive outcomes, performance-approach goals are associated with both adaptive and maladaptive outcomes, and mastery-avoidance and performance-avoidance goals are associated with maladaptive outcomes. In comparison, SDT emphasized the underlying reasons for goal-directed behavior. The reasons can be either 1) autonomous as individuals pursue the goals because they are enjoyable or meaningful, or 2) controlled as individuals pursue the goals for ego, to avoid shame, or for rewards.

Therefore, according to both theories, beneficial outcomes are related to mastery-approach goals (e.g., My goal is to learn), and autonomous reasons (e.g., I pursue goals because I enjoy them.). Research often examine goals followed by reasons associated with the goals (e.g., My goal is [to improve] because [it is fun and challenging]). Using this methodology, findings from these studies showed that predictive value of goals on positive outcomes were non-significant when controlling for reasons. Sommet and Elliot (2017) argued that this methodology entangles the contribution of goals and reasons and should be investigated as achievement goal complex while goals and reasons should be formulated on its own to examine the contribution separately, together, and as a complex.

Sommet and Elliot (2017) uncovered three findings based on the four studies they conducted:

  1. When goals and reasons were examined as separate components, mastery-approach goals and autonomous reasons are related to positive experiences (i.e., interest, satisfaction, positive emotion) and self-regulation of learning (i.e., deep learning, help-seeking, challenging tasks, persistence).

  2. When individuals’ goals and reasons were examined as together, mastery approach goals and autonomous reasons are related to most outcomes but the predictive strength of each outcome was reduced.

  3. When goals, reasons, and goal complexes were examined together, the autonomous mastery-goal complex was related to positive outcomes, while reducing the predictive strength of mastery goals and autonomous reasons.

These findings suggested that goals and reasons are distinct yet overlapping constructs. All in all, the authors concluded that goals and reasons both matter for goal pursuit. Therefore, AGT and SDT should be viewed as integrative and not comparative. It is suggested that both theoretical frameworks should be used to conceptualize, operationalize and analyse the ‘what’ and ‘why’ pursuit of goals for a more comprehensive account of motivation.

Sommet, N., & Elliot, A. J. (2017). Achievement goals, reasons for goal pursuit, and achievement goal complexes as predictors of beneficial outcomes: Is the influence of goals reducible to reasons? Journal of Educational Psychology, 109(8), 1141-1162.

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