Goal orientation

Authored by: Dorothee Alfermann

Routledge International Handbook of Sport Psychology

Print publication date:  February  2016
Online publication date:  February  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138022423
eBook ISBN: 9781315777054
Adobe ISBN: 9781317692324


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In 1980, during a conference in Bielefeld (Germany) on theories and constructs of achievement motivation – with such outstanding participants like Bernard Weiner, Glyn Roberts, Heinz Heckhausen, Lyn Abrahamson, and Carol Dweck – John Nicholls outlined his theory of goal orientation as a theory of achievement motivation for the first time, and later published his ideas in a noteworthy publication (Nicholls, 1984). Different from former conceptions, particularly from the trait oriented theory of motivational dispositions striving for success or avoiding failure by McClelland, Atkinson, Clark, and Lowell (1953), Nicholls emphasized striving for competence instead of seeking (positive or negative) affect as the main impetus for achievement behavior. “Here, achievement behavior is defined as that behavior in which the goal is to develop or demonstrate – to self or to others – high ability, or to avoid demonstrating low ability” (p. 328). He then outlined his conception of two different goals which are based on comparison processes. On the one hand, people may evaluate their competence for tasks depending on their own past performance. As a result of this individual comparison, success or failure would indicate gains or losses of performance and thus high or low ability of the individual, respectively. On the other hand, people may compare their performance with that of others, the result of which does not necessarily indicate ability, but only if effort is taken into account. For example, solving a task with less effort than others would then lead to the conclusion of high ability. Thus, the social comparison process leads to a different result in ability evaluation and in motivational behavior than the individual comparison. To cut the story short, the theory postulates two types of dispositional, stable goal orientations, namely task orientation with an emphasis on mastering the task and a focus on individual comparison processes; and ego orientation (or competitive orientation) placing emphasis on social comparison processes and on surpassing others. These two dispositional goal orientations are related to different ability conceptions and motivational behaviors, like effort or task choice. Besides these two achievement goal orientations, in some publications there are also suggestions to include social approval orientation as a goal in achievement situations (for example, Stuntz & Weiss, 2009), but this concept did not receive much attention in the literature. For reasons of space we will concentrate therefore on task and ego orientation only.

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