Motivation

What Types of Goals Do People Pursue?

Recent research explores the big categories of goals people have.

Posted Feb 25, 2021 | Reviewed by Matt Huston

Key Points:

  • Researchers analyzed the patterns of people's commitment to various kinds of goals.
  • Four broad dimensions of goals emerged: Prominence, Inclusiveness, Negativity-prevention, and Tradition.
  • People who rated high in commitment to Negativity-prevention also tended to report having fewer negative feelings.

Research in psychology tries to illuminate two different aspects of the way the mind works. Some research explores the mechanisms of thought and action. General research on motivation, for example, focuses on how people’s goals get energized and how that energy drives people to act. This work doesn’t care much what goals people are pursuing. The assumption is that any goal could get energized and can then influence how people see and engage with the world.

Shalom H. Schwartz is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
Circular structure of values
Source: Shalom H. Schwartz is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Other work examines more of the content of what people know and what they do. This work is interested in understanding domains of human experience. Research on personality, for example, looks at individual differences in particular kinds of goals that people tend to pursue. The characteristic of openness to experience relates to people’s motivation to approach or avoid new things. Similarly, research on values examines differences among people in their pursuit of particular goals.

What are the main sorts of goals that people tend to pursue?

This question was explored in an interesting paper in the November 2020 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Benjamin Wilkowski, Adam Fetterman, Shaun Lappi, Laverl Williamson, Elizabeth Ferguson Leki, Emilio Rivera, and Brian Meier. They took a data-intensive approach to exploring this question in English speakers.

They started by looking at an online dictionary of English words called WordNet. From the over 140,000 nouns on the list, they identified about 1,000 that they felt referred to relatively abstract goals that people could have. The question the researchers started with was whether there was a particular structure to the goals that people pursue. (It is important to point out early on that because they focused on English, the results might apply only to English speakers.)

They took this list of about 1,000 nouns and had people rate them on a scale ranging from “I have an extremely strong commitment to this” to “I have an extremely strong commitment to avoiding this.” Then, they used a statistical technique called factor analysis to determine which collections of goals tended to hang together—that is, when people were committed to one goal, what other goals did they also seem to be committed to?

From this exercise and a few replications, the researchers identified four factors, for which they created the abbreviation PINT: Prominence, Inclusiveness, Negativity-prevention, and Tradition.

  • Prominence refers to the goal to achieve things and to have power.
  • Inclusiveness refers to having empathy for others and treating people equitably.
  • Negativity-prevention focuses on the avoidance of a variety of things in life that can go wrong.
  • Tradition focuses on the desire to engage with significant cultural norms like patriotism and religion.

After validating this set of goals, the researchers developed a scale in which people could rate their commitment to a smaller number of goals that would enable the researchers to study differences between people in the PINT goals people hold. They used this scale first to compare against other systems that have been explored in previous studies, such as taxonomies of values. They found that the PINT system had some similarities to previous work, but was not identical to any of the prominent systems that have been presented in the past. For example, the Prominence goals are related to the personality characteristic of Extraversion, but not identical to it. Prominence is also related to the values of power and achievement, but again is not identical to them.

One interesting finding to come out of this work is that people who are committed to Negativity-prevention seem to experience fewer negative feelings than people who are not committed to it. This finding suggests that this goal is important for people who want to maintain their positive feelings. By finding ways to avoid negative outcomes, these individuals may minimize the number of situations in their lives that cause them to feel bad.

As I mentioned earlier, this work was only done with English, so more research is needed to determine whether the same broad set of four goals captures a lot of what people find important across language groups and cultures.

In addition, this analysis was developed just from an exploration of words related to goals. The researchers did not attempt to explain why these goals are important or what mechanisms might drive this. To the extent that this structure is obtained in future studies, then (as was done with studies of personality traits), research will then have to be done to understand the psychological mechanisms underlying this set of goals.

References

Wilkowski, B. M., Fetterman, A., Lappi, S. K., Williamson, L. Z., Leki, E. F., Rivera, E., & Meier, B. P. (2020). Lexical derivation of the PINT taxonomy of goals: Prominence, inclusiveness, negativity prevention, and tradition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119(5), 1153–1187. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000268