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Goal contents theory

Author: Dr Simon Moss


According to goal contents theory, one of the five principles of self-determination theory (Vansteenkiste, Niemiec, & Soenens, 2010)--some of the goals that individuals pursue are more likely to promote wellbeing than other goals (Kasser & Ryan, 1996). In particular, some goals--such as endeavors that relate to community support, personal growth, and the formation of close relationships--are called intrinsic (Kasser & Ryan, 1996). These goals foster autonomy, competence, and relatedness, three of the fundamental needs of individuals (see need fulfillment). Consequently, these goals seem enjoyable, challenging, fulfilling, and important, sometimes called intrinsic motivation. These motivations tend to enhance persistence and improve wellbeing.

In contrast, some goals that individuals pursue seem to be extrinsic, relating to accumulating wealth and improving reputation. These goals often impede autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Consequently, these extrinsic goals impair wellbeing (Kasser & Ryan, 1996) and learning (Vansteenkiste, Simons, Lens, Sheldon, & Deci, 2004).

Intrinsic goals, although related to intrinsic or autonomous motivation, are nevertheless distinct. For example, an individual can act altruistically, an intrinsic goal, merely to impress a colleague, an extrinsic motivation or reason. Hence, goals and motivations can be distinct. Indeed, intrinsic goals are related to wellbeing even after the reasons or motives to pursue these goals--and thus intrinsic or autonomous motivation--are controlled (Sheldon, Ryan, Deci, & Kasser, 2004).

Mechanisms that underpin the benefits of intrinsic goals

Several explanations can reconcile the relationship between intrinsic goals and wellbeing. Intrinsic goals, by definition, facilitate the achievement of basic psychological needs. Accordingly, these goals are more inclined to promote wellbeing (Deci & Ryan, 2000). In contrast, extrinsic goals do not fulfill these basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, and hence the satisfaction that is derived from their achievement are transient (Deci & Ryan, 2000).

Several explanations can also accommodate the observed relationship between intrinsic goals and learning. Specifically, in a learning context, individuals who pursue extrinsic rather than intrinsic goals will not become engaged in all facets of the endeavor, but will restrict their efforts to the activities they regard as instrument to some tangible outcome (Vansteenkiste, Simons, Lens, Soenens, & Matos, 2005). Learning is impaired and satisfaction diminishes, because core needs are not fulfilled.

Consequences of extrinsic goals and intrinsic goals

Response to intergroup threats

People who pursue extrinsic goals may feel more threatened by other groups, such as ethnic minorities, than people who pursue intrinsic goals. That is, according to Duriez, Meeus, and Vansteenkiste (2012), individuals who value extrinsic goals are especially concerned with money and status. They may feel that other groups could secure jobs they desire, diminishing their prospects to earn more money. They may also feel that minority groups could threaten their status as the dominant social category. Consequently, these individuals may be especially concerned about the ascent of minority groups.

In contrast, people who value intrinsic goals are not as concerned about money or status. Instead, they value relationships, community, and personal development. Minorities may not impede these goals and indeed could even facilitate the pursuit of these objectives, especially personal growth and contribution to the community.

Duriez, Meeus, and Vansteenkiste (2012) conducted a study that vindicates this possibility. In this study, participants completed the aspiration index, developed and validated by Kasser and Ryan (1996). To gauge the extent to which they pursue extrinsic goals, participants were asked to indicate the importance they attach to financial success, image, and fame. Other questions gauged the degree to which individuals attach importance to intrinsic goals, including growth, contribution to the community, and affiliation.

In addition, participants, all of whom were Belgian, read an article that indicated that Poland plans to join the European Union. Some but not all participants were informed of the adverse consequences that could unfold if Poland did join the European Union. For example, they were informed that unemployment and crime could skyrocket. Finally, participants were asked to indicate the degree to which they perceived the possibility that Poland would join the EU as very enriching or threatening.

If participants tended to pursue extrinsic goals, they were very likely to perceive this decision of Poland to join the European Union as very threatening, especially if the adverse consequences of this possibility were emphasized. In contrast, if participants tended to pursue intrinsic goals, they were not as threatened by this possibility.

Measures of extrinsic and intrinsic goals

The aspiration index, constructed and validated by Kasser and Ryan (1996), is often utilized to measure the degree to which individuals value extrinsic goals and intrinsic goals. Specifically, to gauge the extent to which they pursue extrinsic goals, participants are asked to indicate the importance they attach to financial success (e.g., "It is important for me to be financially successful in life"), image (e.g., "It is important for me to be attractive and good-looking"), and fame (e.g., "It is important for me to receive recognition and admiration for the things I do"). To gauge the degree to which they pursue intrinsic goals, participants indicate the importance they attach to growth (e.g., "It is important for me to develop myself and continue to grow as a person"), contribution to the community (e.g., "It is important for me to try to do things that improve society"), and affiliation (e.g., "It is important for me to build solid and intimate friendships?").

Duriez, Meeus, and Vansteenkiste (2012) showed these items actually load on one factor. The extrinsic goals load positively on this factor and the intrinsic goals load negatively on this factor. All loadings exceed .50. Consequently, researchers tend to reverse score the intrinsic goals. The aggregate reflects the extent to which participants value extrinsic goals over intrinsic goals. Cronbach's alpha was .78

Resolution of identity and intimacy stages

According to Erikson, throughout their life, people need to resolve various crises, each of which surfaces during specific life stages. The successful resolution of each crisis or conflict will uncover competencies and capabilities that can be helpful to the future.

For example, as individuals transcend adolescence and begin the path of adulthood, they need to either clarify their identity or continue to experience confusion about their role in life. For example, they need to resolve questions like "Who am I" and "Where do I fit in the world"? After people resolve this crisis, they tend to agree with statements like "The important things in life are clear to me".

During early adulthood, individuals often reach another crisis in which they need to decide whether to embrace the possibility of rejection, and seek a deep, open, caring, and committed relationship, or to remain isolated. If they embrace intimacy, they agree with statements like "I care deeply for others" but not "Bgfeing alone with other people makes me feel uncomfortable".

Hope, Milyavskaya, Holding, and Koestner (2013) proposed and validated the argument that a shift towards more intrinsic goals, such as the goal to improve society, extend knowledge, or develop relationships, facilitates the resolution of these two crises. If individuals embrace these intrinsic goals, they experience a sense of autonomy. This sense of autonomy enables people to clarify their values& their identity is thus certain. Likewise, this clarity may increase the resilience of individuals, because they strive to sustain their pursuits regardless of obstacles. Because of this resilience, individuals may be willing to experience the rejection that perhaps the pursuit of intimacy can entail.

Consistent with these possibilities, participants who become more likely to embrace intrinsic goals over time were more likely to experience clarity in identity and intimacy in relationships. In addition, clarify of identity, but not intimacy, was positively associated with psychological wellbeing.

Determinants of extrinsic goals and intrinsic goals


When individuals experience a sense of awe, they are more inclined to choose experiences over material goods. In particular, as emphasized by Rudd, Vohs, and Aaker (2012), if people are exposed to something that is vast and remarkable, they feel a sense of awe and became entranced or immersed in this feat or event. This immersion in their immediate environment increases the likelihood that people do not feel as rushed as usual. Consequently, they feel they are granted the time to embrace experiences.

To illustrate, in one study, conducted by Rudd, Vohs, and Aaker (2012), to evoke a sense of awe, some participants imagined ascending the Eiffel Tower and seeing Paris from this height. Other participants imagined ascending an unnamed tower and seeing a plain landscape. Next, they were asked to indicate the extent to which they felt rushed as well as whether they would prefer to spend money on experiences, such as a Broadway show, or material goods, such as a watch. If awe was evoked, participants were more likely to prefer the experiences. This relationship was mediated by the sense that time is sufficient rather than rushed and restricted.

Reflections on internal values

As Lekes, Hope, Gouvei, Koestner, and Philippe (2012) showed, if individuals are inspired to reflect upon their intrinsic values, such as relationship development, personal growth, or community service, their values actually change. They become more likely to treasure these intrinsic values, and their wellbeing improves accordingly.

This possibility was demonstrated by Lekes, Hope, Gouvei, Koestner, and Philippe (2012). In their study, the participants were university students. In one condition, participants first read about the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic values as well as the discovery that intrinsic values enhance wellbeing. Next, they received a list of 13 intrinsic values. They were asked to choose the two values that are most significant to them. For 15 to 20 minutes, they wrote about why these values are important to them and how they manifest or incorporate these values in daily life. In the control condition, participants completed a similar exercise, but instead wrote about daily activities instead of intrinsic values. After this exercise, they completed various indices of wellbeing, a measure that gauges their values, and a shortened version of the social desirability index.

Over the next four weeks, participants were prompted each week to reflect upon these intrinsic values or activities again. The extent to which they felt engaged in this activity was gauged. Finally, all the measures were administered after four weeks.

Compared to participants who wrote about daily activities, participants who wrote about intrinsic values reported greater wellbeing--including positive emotions and vitality--immediately. Then, over the next four weeks, they also reported greater levels of intrinsic motivation and wellbeing, provided they felt engaged in this procedure. These findings persisted even after social desirability was controlled.

Factors that moderate the consequences of extrinsic goals and intrinsic goals

Caprariello and Reis (2012) challenge the proposition that life experiences per se are more likely to enhance happiness than are material possessions. Instead, they believe that any activities that promote social interaction and sharing tend to foster happiness. Life experiences may, in general, be more beneficial than a material acquisition merely because they foster social interaction and sharing. Indeed, as they showed, after social interactions and sharing were controlled, the benefits of life experiences over material possessions were no longer significant.

For example, in one study, on each trial, individuals needed to decide which of two purchases they prefer. In general, they preferred social experiences to material purchases in general as well as material purchases in general to solitary experiences. In a later study, participants reflected upon a time in which they bought one of four purchases using discretionary income: a solitary life experience, a life experience with at least one other person, a solitary material possession, or a material possession that promotes social interactions, such as a game. In general, social purchases, regardless of whether they were life experiences or material possessions, were more likely to elicit feelings of happiness.

Several mechanisms could explain the benefits of social experiences. For example, people are more likely to converse about social experiences, and these discussions tend to amplify the experience.

In some circumstances, intrinsic goals may not enhance life satisfaction or happiness. Within a Peruvian slum, for example, intrinsic goals were inversely associated with wellbeing, as shown by Guillen-Royo and Kasser (2015). Presumably, when unachievable goals are salient, wellbeing tends to diminish, at least transiently.


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