The current studies attempted to increase individuals’ internalization of their own difficult or unpleasant goals, using either a low-level or a high-level writing intervention. Two writing studies showed that an appropriate match between level of goal-relevant skill (low versus high) and level of prompted goal-cognition (low versus high) enhances motivation. Those lower in initial skills were more likely to internalize their goals over time (Studies 1 and 2) and report greater goal expectancies (Study 2) if they wrote about the “how” of the goals, whereas those higher in initial skills were more likely to experience these positive outcomes by writing about the “why” of goals. This interaction pattern was found in both a short-term experimental study of health goals (Study 1) and in a 2 month longitudinal study of academic goals (Study 2). Results are discussed in the context of action identification theory and of self-regulation, which emphasize allocating attention to the right level of abstraction for optimal functioning.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
In Study 2, females and males differ in their level of internalization towards their academic goals at both times internalization was assessed. In Study 1, although internalization of the health goal did not vary by gender, we chose to include gender in the analyses to keep our analyses consistent. We note that results of Study 1 were essentially the same with or without the inclusion of gender as a control variable.
Assor, A., Kaplan, H., & Roth, G. (2002). Choice is good, but relevance is excellent: Autonomy- enhancing and suppressing teacher behaviours predicting students’ engagement in schoolwork. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 72(2), 261–278.
Bandura, A., & Schunk, D. (1981). Cultivating competence, self-efficacy, and intrinsic interest through proximal self-motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41, 586–598.
Black, A. E., & Deci, E. L. (2000). The effects of instructors’ autonomy support and students’ autonomous motivation on learning organic chemistry: A self-determination theory perspective. Science Education, 84, 740–756.
Brandstätter, V., Lengfelder, A., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2001). Implementation intentions and efficient action initiation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 946–960.
Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (1981). The self-attention-induced feedback loop and social facilitation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 17, 545–568.
Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (1998). On the self-regulation of behavior. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Coyle, T. R., & Pillow, D. R. (2008). SAT and ACT predict college GPA after removing g. Intelligence, 36, 719–729.
Csikzentmihalyi, M. (1997). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.
Deci, E. L., Connell, J. P., & Ryan, R. M. (1989). Self-determination in a work organization. Journal of Applied Psychology, 74, 580–590.
Gagné, M., & Deci, E. L. (2005). Self-determination theory and work motivation. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26, 331–362.
Grolnick, W. S., & Ryan, R. M. (1987). Autonomy in children’s learning: An experimental and individual difference investigation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 890–898.
Grolnick, W. S., & Ryan, R. M. (1989). Parent styles associated with children’s self-regulation and competence in school. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81, 143–154.
Grolnick, W. S., Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (1991). The inner resources for school performance: Motivational mediators of children’s perceptions of their parents. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83, 508–517.
Guay, F., Boggiano, A. K., & Vallerand, R. J. (2001). Autonomy support, intrinsic motivation, and perceived competence: Conceptual and empirical linkages. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 643–650.
Houser-Marko, L., & Sheldon, K. M. (2008). Eyes on the prize or nose to the grindstone? The effects of level of goal evaluation on mood and motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1556–1569.
Joussemet, M., Koestner, R., Lekes, N., & Landry, R. (2005). A longitudinal study of the relationship of maternal autonomy support to children’s adjustment and achievement in school. Journal of Personality, 73, 1215–1235.
King, L. A. (2001). The health benefits of writing about life goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 798–807.
Koestner, R., & Losier, G. F. (2002). Distinguishing three ways of being highly motivated: A closer look at introjection, identification, and intrinsic motivation. In E. L. Deci & R. M. Ryan (Eds.), Handbook of self-determination research (pp. 101–121). Rochester, New York: The University of Rochester Press.
Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science, 8, 162–166.
Petrie, K. J., Fontanillia, I., Thomas, M. G., Booth, R. J., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2004). Effect of written emotional expression on immune function in patients with human immunodeficiency virus infection: A randomized trial. Psychosomatic Medicine, 66, 272–275.
Pham, L. B., & Taylor, S. E. (1999). From thought to action: Effects of process—versus outcome—based mental simulations on performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 250–260.
Reeve, J., Jang, H., Harde, P., & Omura, M. (2002). Providing a rationale in an autonomy—supportive way as a strategy to motivate others during an uninteresting activity. Motivation and Emotion, 26, 183–207.
Ryan, R. M. (1995). Psychological needs and the facilitation of integrative processes. Journal of Personality, 63, 397–427.
Ryan, R. M., & Connell, J. P. (1989). Perceived locus of causality and internalization: Examining reasons for acting in two domains. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 749–761.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68–78.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2002). An overview of self-determination theory: An organismic dialectical perspective. In E. L. Deci & R. M. Ryan (Eds.), Handbook of self-determination research (pp. 3–36). Rochester, New York: The University of Rochester Press.
Ryan, R. M., Plant, R. W., & O’Malley, S. (1995). Initial motivations for alcohol treatment: Relations with patient characteristics, treatment involvement and dropout. Addictive Behaviors, 20, 279–297.
Sackett, P. R., Kuncel, N. R., Arneson, J. J., Cooper, S. R., & Waters, S. D. (2009). Does socioeconomic status explain the relationship between admissions tests and post-secondary academic performance? Psychological Bulletin, 135, 1–22.
Sheldon, K. M., & Elliot, A. J. (1998). Not all personal goals are “personal”: Comparing autonomous and controlling goals on effort and attainment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24, 546–557.
Sheldon, K. M., & Elliot, A. J. (1999). Goal striving, need satisfaction, and longitudinal well-being: The self-concordance model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 482–497.
Sheldon, K. M., & Houser-Marko, L. (2001). Self-concordance, goal attainment, and the pursuit of happiness: Can there be an upward spiral? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 152–165.
Sheldon, K. M., & Kasser, T. (1998). Pursuing personal goals: Skills enable progress but not all progress is beneficial. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24, 1319–1331.
Sheldon, K. M., & Kasser, T. (2001). Getting older, getting better? Personal strivings and psychological maturity across the life span. Developmental Psychology, 37, 491–501.
Smyth, J. M. (1998). Written emotional expression: Effect sizes, outcome types, and moderating variables. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 66, 174–184.
Soenens, B., & Vansteenkiste, M. (2005). Antecedents and outcomes of self-determination in three life domains: The role of parents’ and teachers’ autonomy support. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 34, 589–604.
Tolli, A. P., & Schmidt, A. M. (2008). The role of feedback, casual attributions, and self-efficacy in goal revision. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 692–701.
Vallacher, R. R., & Wegner, D. M. (1987). What do people think they are doing? Action identification and human behavior. Psychological Review, 94, 3–15.
Vallacher, R. R., & Wegner, D. M. (1989). Levels of personal agency: Individual variation in action identification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 660–671.
Vallacher, R. R., Wegner, D. M., & Somoza, M. P. (1989). That’s easy for you to say: Action identification and speech fluency. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 199–208.
Williams, G. C. (2002). Improving patients’ health through supporting the autonomy of patients and providers. In E. L. Deci & R. M. Ryan (Eds.), Handbook of self-determination research (pp. 233–254). Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.
Williams, G. C., Gagné, M., Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2002). Facilitating autonomous motivation for smoking cessation. Health Psychology, 21, 40–50.
Williams, G. C., McGregor, H. A., Sharp, D., Levesque, C., Kouides, R. W., Ryan, R. M., et al. (2006). Testing a self-determination theory intervention for motivating tobacco cessation: Supporting autonomy and competence in a clinical trial. Health Psychology, 25, 91–101.
Zeldman, A., Ryan, R. M., & Fiscella, K. (2004). Client motivation, autonomy support and entity beliefs: Their role in methadone maintenance treatment. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23, 675–696.
Zimmerman, B. J., & Kitsantas, A. (1997). Developmental phases in self-regulation: Shifting from process goals to outcome goals. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89, 29–36.
About this article
Cite this article
Ferguson, Y.L., Sheldon, K.M. Should goal-strivers think about “why” or “how” to strive? It depends on their skill level. Motiv Emot 34, 253–265 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-010-9174-9
- Self-determination theory
- Action-identification theory
- Goal implementation
- Personal goals
- Goal expectancy