The ability to disengage from hopeless situations is critical to goal attainment and effective self-regulation. Two experiments investigated the effects of striving to attain success (approach goals) versus striving to avoid failure (avoidance goals) on persistence. Participants completed anagrams designed so that less persistence during an initial set of unsolvable anagrams was beneficial. In Study 1, participants reported how motivated they were by approach and avoidance goals. In Study 2, participants were primed to set approach or avoidance goals. Participants with avoidance goals persisted longer during failure, with more intense and enduring emotional distress, than those with approach goals. Greater anger predicted spending more time on subsequent unsolvable anagrams and accounted for differences in persistence. The results suggest that people with approach goals are better able to identify when they should disengage during failure, and disengage more completely, than people with avoidance goals.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
Aspinwall, L. G., & Leaf, S. L. (2002). In search of the unique aspects of hope: Pinning our hopes on positive emotions, future oriented thinking hard times, and other people. Psychological Inquiry, 13, 276–288.
Aspinwall, L. G., & Richter, L. (1999). Optimism and self-mastery predict more rapid disengagement from unsolvable tasks in the presence of alternatives. Motivation and Emotion, 23, 221–245.
Austin, J. T., & Vancouver, J. B. (1996). Goal constructs in psychology: Structure, process, and content. Psychological Bulletin, 120, 338–375.
Barrett, L. F., & Russell, J. A. (1998). Independence and bipolarity in the structure of current affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 967–984.
Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323–370.
Berkowitz, L., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2004). Toward an understanding of the determinants of anger. Emotion, 4, 107–130.
Bower, J. E., Kemeny, M. E., Taylor, S. E., & Fahey, J. L. (2003). Finding positive meaning and its association with natural killer cell cytotoxicity among participants in a bereavement-related disclosure intervention. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 25, 146–155.
Carver, C. S. (2004). Negative affects deriving from the behavioral approach system. Emotion, 4, 3–22.
Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (1990). Origins and functions of positive and negative affect: A control-process view. Psychological Review, 97, 19–35.
Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (1998). On the self-regulation of behavior. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Carver, C. S., & White, T. L. (1994). Behavioral inhibition, behavioral activation, and affective responses to impending reward and punishment: The BIS/BAS scales. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 319–333.
Conroy, D. E., Elliot, A. J., & Hofer, S. M. (2003). A 2 × 2 achievement goals questionnaire for sport: Evidence for factorial invariance, temporal stability, and external validity. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 25, 456–476.
Crowe, E., & Higgins, E. T. (1997). Regulatory focus and strategic inclinations: Promotion and prevention in decision-making. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 69, 117–132.
Damasio, A. (1999). The feeling of what happens: Body and emotion in the making of consciousness. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt College Publishers.
Derryberry, D., & Reed, M. A. (1994). Temperament and attention: Orienting toward and away from positive and negative signals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 1128–1139.
Dweck, C. S. (1999). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Essays in social psychology. New York, NY: Psychology Press.
Dweck, C. S., & Leggett, E. L. (2000). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. In T. E. Higgins & A. W. Kruglanski (Eds.), Motivational science: Social and personality perspectives. Key readings in social psychology (pp. 394–415). Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press.
Elliot, A. J., Gable, S. L., & Mapes, R. R. (2006). Approach and avoidance motivation in the social domain. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 378–391.
Elliot, A. J., McGregor, H. A., & Gable, S. (1999). Achievement goals, study strategies, and exam performance: A mediational analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91, 549–563.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218–226.
Friedman, R. S., & Forster, J. (2001). The effects of promotion and prevention cues on creativity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 1001–1013.
Frijda, N. H. (1987). Emotion, cognitive structure, and action tendency. Cognition and Emotion, 1, 115–143.
Gray, J. A. (1972). The psychophysiological basis of introversion-extraversion: A modification of Eysenck’s theory. In V. D. Nebylitsyn & J. A. Gray (Eds.), The biological basis of individual behavior (pp. 182–205). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Harmon-Jones, E. (2004). On the relationship of frontal brain activity and anger: Examining the role of attitude toward anger. Cognition and Emotion, 18, 337–361.
Harmon-Jones, E., Lueck, L., Fearn, M., & Harmon-Jones, C. (2006). The effect of personal relevance and approach-related action expectation on relative left frontal cortical activity. Psychological Science, 17, 434–440.
Harmon-Jones, E., Sigelman, J. D., Bohlig, A., & Harmon-Jones, C. (2003). Anger, coping, and frontal cortical activity: The effect of coping potential on anger-induced left frontal activity. Cognition and Emotion, 17, 1–24.
Heckhausen, H. (1982). Task-irrelevant cognitions during an exam. Incidence and effects. In H. W. Krohn & L. Laux (Eds.), Achievement, stress, and anxiety (pp. 247–274). Washington, DC: Hemisphere.
Heckhausen, J. (1999). Developmental regulation in adulthood: Age-normative and sociostructural constraints as adaptive challenges. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Higgins, T. E., Shah, J., & Friedman, R. (1997). Emotional responses to goal attainment: Strength of regulatory focus as moderator. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 515–525.
Janoff-Bulman, R., & Brickman, P. (1982). Expectations and what people learn from failure. In N. T. Feather (Ed.), Expectations and actions: Expectancy-value models in psychology (pp. 207–237). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.
Jarvis, B. G. (2004). MediaLab research software, Version 2004 [Computer Program]. New York, NY: Empirisoft (http://www.empirisoft.com).
Keltner, D., Ellsworth, P. C., & Edwards, K. (1993). Beyond simple pessimism: Effects of sadness and anger on social perception. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 740–752.
Kuhl, J. (1992). A theory of self-regulation: Action versus state orientation, self-discrimination, and some applications. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 41, 97–129.
Kuhl, J. (2000). A functional-design approach to motivation and self-regulation: The dynamics of personality systems and interactions. In M. Boekaerts & P. R. Pintrich (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation (pp. 111–169). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Lang, P. J. (1995). The emotion probe: Studies of motivation and attention. American Psychologist, 50, 372–385.
Lench, H. C., & Levine, L. J. (2005). Effects of fear on risk and control judgements: Implications for health promotion messages. Cognition and Emotion, 19, 1049–1069.
Lerner, J. S., & Keltner, D. (2000). Beyond valence: Toward a model of emotion-specific influences on judgement and choice. Cognition and Emotion, 14, 473–493.
Lerner, J. S., & Keltner, D. (2001). Fear, anger, and risk. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 146–159.
Levine, L. J. (1995). Young children’s understanding of the causes of anger and sadness. Child Development, 66, 697–709.
Levine, L. J. (1996). The anatomy of disappointment: A naturalistic test of appraisal models of sadness, anger, and hope. Cognition and Emotion, 10, 337–359.
Levine, L. J., & Pizarro, D. A. (2004). Emotion and memory research: A grumpy overview. Social Cognition, 22, 530–554.
Norman, C. C., & Aron, A. (2003). Aspects of possible self that predict motivation to achieve or avoid it. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 39, 500–507.
Quigley, B. M., & Tedeschi, J. T. (1996). Mediating effects of blame attributions on feelings of anger. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 1280–1288.
Ressler, N. (2004). Rewards and punishments, goal-directed behavior and consciousness. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 28, 27–39.
Scherer, K. R. (1999). Appraisal theory. In T. Dalgleish & M. J. Power (Eds.), Handbook of cognition and emotion (pp. 637–663). New York: Wiley & Sons.
Scheier, M. F., & Carver, C. S. (1993). On the power of positive thinking: The benefits of being optimistic. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2, 26–30.
Scheier, M. F., Carver, C. S., & Bridges, M. W. (1994). Distinguishing optimism from neuroticism (and trait anxiety, self-mastery, and self-esteem): A reevaluation of the Life Orientation Test. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 1063–1078.
Schulz, R., & Heckhausen, J. (1996). A life span model of successful aging. American Psychologist, 51, 702–714.
Seligman, M. E. P., Schulman, P., DeRubeis, R. J., & Hollon, S. D. (1999). The prevention of depression and anxiety. Prevention and Treatment, 2. Retrieved February 2008 from http://journals.apa.org/prevention.
Shah, J. Y. (2005). The automatic pursuit and management of goals. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 10–13.
Shah, J., Higgins, T., & Friedman, R. S. (1998). Performance incentives and means: How regulatory focus influences goal attainment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 285–293.
Sherman, S. J., Skov, R. B., Hervitz, E. F., & Stock, C. B. (1981). The effects of explaining hypothetical future events: From possibility to probability to actuality and beyond. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 17, 142–158.
Snyder, C. R. (1999). Hope, goal-blocking thoughts, and test-related anxieties. Psychological Reports, 84, 206–208.
Snyder, C. R., Harris, C., Anderson, J. R., Holleran, S. A., Irving, L. M., Sigmon, S. T., Yoshinobu, L., Gibb, J., Langelle, C., & Harney, P. (1991). The will and the ways: Development and validation of an individual-differences measure of hope. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 570–585.
Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological Bulletin, 103, 193–210.
Wortman, C. B., Panciera, L., Shusterman, L., & Hibscher, J. (1976). Attributions of causality and reactions to uncontrollable outcomes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 12, 301–316.
Wrosch, C., Scheier, M. F., Carver, C. S., & Schulz, R. (2003). The importance of goal disengagement in adaptive self-regulation: When giving up is beneficial. Self and Identity, 2, 1–20.
We are grateful to Marissa Botello, Kathy Tjhin, Joanne Hwang, and Jenna Tanaka for assistance with data collection and entry. Financial support was provided to the first author by an American Psychological Association Dissertation Award and Chancellor’s Fellowship for Excellence.
An earlier version of this article was presented at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference, Palm Springs, CA, January, 2006.
About this article
Cite this article
Lench, H.C., Levine, L.J. Goals and responses to failure: Knowing when to hold them and when to fold them. Motiv Emot 32, 127–140 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-008-9085-1