Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences

Living Edition
| Editors: Virgil Zeigler-Hill, Todd K. Shackelford

Personal Strivings

  • Nicole R. HarakeEmail author
  • William L. Dunlop
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_1873-1

In the current entry, we provide an overview of the “personal strivings approach” to the study of personality. Personal strivings are motivational units that tap the things individuals are “typically trying to do” (Emmons 1999, p. 182). As such, these constructs are a fruitful avenue by which participants express their wishes, concerns, and desires. Below, we provide a brief summary of the conceptual and empirical features of the personal strivings approach. This is followed by a description of the contextualized nature of personal strivings. We conclude by outlining the relation between personal strivings and psychological adjustment.

Goal Motivation and Personal Strivings

Personal strivings are motivational units that capture the things individuals are currently working on or typically trying to do. Within the goal motivation literature, there exists variation with respect to the targeted level of specificity. Personal strivings rest at the midpoint between higher-order and more specific goals; these strivings are more specific than life goals (e.g., get married), but broader than current concerns (e.g., “find a date this weekend,”), which represent discrete, rather than recurrent, ambitions. As such, they are considered “mid-level” units.

With respect to assessment, personal strivings are typically measured in the following manner: Participants are first informed that the researcher is interested in the things that they (i.e., the participants) are “characteristically or typically trying to do” (Emmons 1999, p. 181). A series of examples of strivings are then provided including “Trying to be physically attractive to others” and “Trying to avoid being noticed by others.” It is then clarified that (a) this measure is meant to assess the things one is typically trying to do, irrespective of whether these attempts are ultimately successful, and (b) participants should avoid describing themselves using trait adjectives (e.g., friendly, sociable). Participants are then asked to list ten things they are typically trying to do. In each case, participants are asked to complete the sentence, “I am typically trying to…” Space is provided for 15 strivings.

Many assessments stop here. Participants, however, may be asked to next rate their strivings along a number of additional dimensions including the degree of ambivalence they experience while progressing towards each goal, the likelihood of each striving’s ultimate attainment, each striving’s importance, and the degree of support they feel close others provide in the pursuit of each striving (all told, Emmons [1999] offered 17 dimensions on which participants may be asked to evaluate their strivings). Furthermore, participants may also be asked to complete the Striving Instrumentality Matrix (SIM) which quantifies the degree of antagonism/synergy between each possible pair of strivings.

The Contextualized Nature of Personal Strivings

Personal strivings typically manifest within a particular context or domain (Dunlop et al. 2013, 2014; McAdams 1995; Sheldon and Elliot 2000). For example, it is much more likely for a participant to express a desire to “do well in my classes,” than to report a broader desire, such as “do well in everything.” For this reason, personal strivings are appropriately framed as being couched within particular social contexts, or contextualized, in nature (Dunlop et al. 2013, 2014; McAdams 1995). As a result, a pressing question concerns the way(s) in which these strivings differ across contexts. In an attempt to address this question, Dunlop et al. (2014) prompted participants for personal strivings from within a number of professional (e.g., as an employee) and personal (e.g., as a romantic partner) contexts. These strivings were then coded for themes of agency (e.g., self-expansion, assertion, dominance) and communion (e.g., deference, social connection, and harmony), broad meta-constructs capturing the “duality of human existence” (Bakan 1966). Strivings pertaining to professional contexts were characterized by themes of agency, whereas strivings pertaining to relational contexts were characterized by themes communion. This work underscores the notion that the strivings individuals pursue within specific domains demonstrate unique thematic qualities.

Quantifying Personal Strivings

In addition to themes of agency and communion, personal strivings may be quantified in terms of a number of additional nomothetic conceptual categories (see Dunlop et al. 2017; Emmons 1999). Among these conceptual categories, a divide should be drawn between the more motive or thematic elements of participants’ goals, and the more explicit or manifest content of said goals (Dunlop et al. 2017). The former shares an intellectual history with the implicit motives typically assessed via qualitative responses to projective tests and other prompts (e.g., McClelland et al. 1989; Winter 2004), whereas the latter represents a more recent and heterogeneous zeitgeist within psychological science.

The four most commonly utilized motive-based categories are achievement, affiliation, intimacy, and power. The achievement motive captures a concern for accomplishing a task with a standard of excellence and is reflected in strivings such as “Do well in my class.” The affiliation motive is manifest in a concern for establishing, maintaining, or repairing relationships, as well as gaining acceptance from others (e.g., “Meet new people”). The intimacy motive captures a concern for others, as well as references to interpersonal relationships involving positive, warm interactions with others (e.g., “Care for my girlfriend”). Finally, the power motive represents a desire to establish, maintain, or restore dominance, as well as impacting, controlling, or persuading others (e.g., “Convince my friends that I am intelligent”).

With respect to manifest content, several research groups have attempted to categorize motivational units (although not necessarily personal strivings) as relevant to one or another life domain. One taxonomy, for example, distinguishes goals on the basis of their relevance to the domains of education, friendship, travel, work, family, and health (Salmela-Aro et al. 2007), whereas another system recognizes the domains of marriage, values, self-related, material, leisure, housing, and social participation (Krings et al. 2008). Evidenced by the different domains inherent in these taxonomies, an advantage of this approach is that researchers are able to consider the domains most applicable to their sample and research questions.

In one noteworthy study, researchers generated a typology of coding dimensions that captured both the motive-based and manifest content of personal strivings (Dunlop et al. 2017). Motives were operationalized in terms of the four themes referenced above. The manifest content of strivings, in contrast, was quantified in terms of finance (e.g., reducing debt), health (e.g., improving or managing health), travel (e.g., traveling, moving), and generativity. Generativity is a psychosocial concern that describes a consideration for future generations and is characterized by strivings such as “Have children” or “Be a good role model for my siblings.” This framework, containing both motive-based and manifest content, may be consulted by researchers wishing to incorporate both coding traditions into their study of motivational units.

Personal Strivings and Psychological Adjustment

Personal strivings are central to psychological well-being, such that setting personal strivings provides structure and direction for one’s life, while achieving strivings contributes to a one’s overall life satisfaction (Diener 1984; Emmons 1996; Little 1989). With respect to participants’ own evaluations, the degree of self-reported ambivalence towards, and self-reported conflict among, one’s strivings has been found to relate positively depression and psychosomatic complaints (Emmons and King 1988). Turning to the content of strivings, several studies have identified relations between the motive-based features of participants strivings and subjective well-being (e.g., Sheldon and Houser-Marko 2001). Strivings that are categorized by affiliative and intimacy motives have been found to relate positively with self-reports of well-being, whereas power strivings have been found to correspond negatively with well-being (Ackerman et al. 2000; Emmons 1991; Igreja et al. 2000; McAdams et al. 1993).

The manifest content of personal strivings has also been found to relate to well-being (Sheldon et al. 2004), however as is evident from the above, researchers often vary in how they operationalize the manifest content of strivings. In any manner, goals pertaining to self-development do not appear to be consistently advantageous. For example, in a sample of young adults, goals focusing on the development of participant’s personality, identity, and life style corresponded with lower well-being (Salmela-Aro et al. 2007; Kasser and Ryan 1993). In addition, those who tend to pursue extrinsic goals, such as projecting an attractive image or accumulating material possessions, have been found to exhibit lower levels of well-being, relative to those whose goals are more intrinsically motivated (Kasser 2002; Ryan et al. 1996; Sheldon et al. 2004). Finally, generative themes have been found to correspond positively with well-being (e.g., Ackerman et al. 2000; McAdams et al. 1993).


In summary, the personal strivings approach provides insight into the ambitions individuals are actively and recurrently working towards, while providing a means to investigate the underlying motivations and content of such ambitions. These strivings represent an important component of personality insofar as they capture meaningful dimensions of individuality. This statement is buttressed by the fact that features of personal strivings are related to important outcomes, including well-being and life satisfaction.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of CaliforniaRiversideUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • John F. Rauthmann
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversität zu LübeckLübeckGermany