Goal Orientation, Task Difficulty and Task Interest: Effects on Setting Personal Goals

How do task difficulty and interest affect our goal setting?

Posted Sep 14, 2008

What factors influence the types of goals we set? Will I aim to excel or just get by? Of course, both person and situation variables interact in the process of goal setting. This recent study helps us understand a little more about 3 factors that influence goal setting.

Michael Horvath, Hailey Herleman and Lee McKie (Clemson University) explored goal setting in relation to two situational variables - task difficulty and interest - as well as one personal attribute, Goal Orientation. Before we can discuss what they did, let's define a few terms.

Task difficulty
Perceived task difficulty refers to our beliefs about how much effort would be needed to succeed at a task. It also includes our perception of how likely we'll be successful, if at all. This perception includes both objective characteristics of the situation as well as our ability. The climb depicted in the picture above, although difficult, would be perceived differently depending on your climbing experience and ability. And, of course, task difficulty is related to our intentions to engage in the behavior. Quite frankly, I would never attempt that climb, but I don't like heights.

Although I've written earlier that interest is an emotion (see Lighting the fire for learning), Horvath and colleagues include both feelings as well as the perceptions of value or relevance of a topic in their definition of interest. Individuals who have an interest in a topic or task are more likely to persist, be emotionally involved and focus their attention more easily on the task.

Goal orientation
This individual difference or personality variable is defined as having two flavors: 1) Mastery Goal Orientation (MGO), otherwise known as a Learning Orientation, and 2) Performance Orientation (PGO), sometimes called Ego Orientation. The two orientations contrast in fundamental ways. Mastery-oriented individuals seek to develop their competence and improve their abilities. In contrast, Performance-oriented individuals seek to demonstrate their competence and/or avoid revealing their incompetence. Furthermore, some psychologists also add an approach vs. avoidance dimension to the Performance Orientation, such that Performance-Approach people seek to demonstrate competence, and, not surprisingly, Performance-Avoidance people seek to avoid revealing incompetence.

Their research
As you will have predicted, each of these variables - task difficulty, task interest and the individual's Goal Orientation - may affect goal setting in different ways. The simple predictions might be that the more difficult the task, the lower the personal goal set; whereas the higher the task interest, the higher the personal goal set. The thing is, life is one big "interaction effect," and these researchers explored the interaction of these variables in their research.

They had 499 undergraduate students (on average 19 years of age, 61% female) included in their final sample. The students completed a survey regarding their classes, including key questions tapping interest and difficulty. For example, "I am interested in the course material for this class" and "How difficult do you feel this course is for you?" They were also asked about their grade goal for the course on a 100-point scale. Finally, they completed a measure of Goal Orientation (e.g., "I try to avoid discovering that others are better than me." "I enjoy opportunities to extend the range of my abilities," etc.)

The results
The authors used Hierarchical Linear Modeling, which I will not describe here. In sum, they found that Goal Orientation affected the relationship between perceived task difficulty and goal setting in the course. As they note,

"High levels of PGO or MGO buffered the effects of difficulty on goals, such that difficulty was not as related to goals for individual who were higher on these constructs. . . . Similarly we also found that MGO may also weaken the relationship between perceived class difficulty and self-set course goals, as difficulty has less of an effect on goals for individuals higher in MGO" (p. 176).

The effect of interest on goal setting was not found to vary with Goal Orientation. The main effect held that more task interest results in higher goal setting, irrespective of the individual's goal orientation. The implication is that raising the interest level of a task may be an effective strategy to enhance higher goal setting across any organization, and the authors note this in the final remarks in their paper.

What this means in terms of procrastination
The authors close their paper with some comments on the "practical implications" of their research, and it is here that the research speaks to the issue of procrastination (although they do not address it explicitly). As I have noted previously in a review of other research, evaluation threat and threats to self increase the likelihood of procrastination. The interplay of difficult tasks with a Performance Orientation seems to result in lower goal setting. These lower goals may be well below the true potential performance of the individual. This is form of self-handicapping.

Closing thoughts
Performance and Mastery Orientations, while treated by many psychologists as relatively stable and enduring individual differences or traits, vary across situations. It is important to reflect on your own motivations in the various contexts in your life to identify to what extent you're working to enhance your ability and learn vs. simply demonstrating your existing competence vs. avoiding failure or demonstrating incompetence. To the extent that you realize that you are tending to a Performance Orientation, or an Avoidance rather than an Approach motive, it would be important to develop strategies to enhance your feelings of self-efficacy - feelings that you are capable of learning. If you don't, chances are you'll self-handicap by setting a lower goal or by procrastinating on the task to provide an alternative explanation for the feared failure.

Horvath, M., Herleman, H.A., & McKie, R.L. (2006). Goal orientation, task difficulty and task interest: A multilevel analysis. Motivation and Emotion, 30, 171-178.