Why Am I Doing This

Achievement goal theory is the newest motivational approach to understanding children's engagement in various skill-based activities like school and sports (see Midgley, 2002). This theory focuses on why children think they are engaging in particular achievement-related activities and what they hope to accomplish through their engagement. Although the work related to this theory has progressed independently of the work discussed earlier on the valuing of an activity and on intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, the concepts have strong theoretical links to these other theoretical perspectives. We include it in this chapter because individual differences in goals are likely to affect task engagement, as well as the relations of performance outcomes and engagement in mental health and ability self-concepts.

Nicholls and his colleagues (e.g., Nicholls, 1979; Nicholls et al., 1990) defined two major kinds of motivationally relevant goal patterns or orientations: ego-involved goals and task-involved goals. Individuals with ego-involved goals seek to maximize favorable evaluations of their competence and minimize negative evaluations of competence. Questions like "Will I look smart?" and "Can I outperform others?" reflect ego-involved goals. In contrast, with task-involved goals, individuals focus on mastering tasks and increasing one's competence. Questions such as "How can I do this task?" and "What will I learn?" reflect task-involved goals.

Dweck and her colleagues provide a complementary analysis distinguishing between performance goals (like ego-involved goals), and learning goals (like task-involved goals) (see Dweck, 1999; Dweck & Leggett, 1988). Similarly, Ames (1992) and Midgley (2002) distinguish between the association of performance (like ego-involved) goals and mastery goals (like task-focused goals) with both performance and task choice. With ego-involved (or performance) goals, children try to outperform others, and are more likely to do tasks they know they can do. Task-involved (or mastery-oriented) children choose challenging tasks and are more concerned with their own progress than with outperforming others.

Other researchers (e.g., Ford, 1992; Wentzel, 1991) have adopted a more complex perspective on goals and motivation, arguing that there are many different kinds of goals individuals can have in achievement settings. For example, Ford (e.g., Ford, 1992; Ford & Nichols, 1987) defined goals as desired end states people try to attain through the cognitive, affective and biochemical regulation of their behavior. Similar to Rokeach's (1979) human values and Eccles' attainment value (Eccles, 1983), Fords' set of goals included affective goals (e.g., happiness, physical well-being), cognitive goals (e.g., exploration, intellectual creativity), and subjective organization goals (e.g., unity, transcendence). Like Deci and Ryan's self-determination theory, his list of important goals also included self-assertive goals such as self-determination and individuality, integrative social relationship goals such as belonging-ness and social responsibility, and task goals such as mastery, material gain, and safety. Finally, Ford's goals included specific goals related to impacting on, or controlling/mastering, various aspects of the contexts one inhabits such as building a fort or winning a specific game or completing an important school assignment.

Development of Children's Goals

To date there has been surprisingly little empirical work on how children's goals develop. Nicholls (e.g., 1990) documented that both task goals and ego goals are already developed by second grade

(Nicholls et al., 1990). However, Nicholls (1989) also suggested that the ego-goal orientation becomes more prominent for many children as they get older, in part, because of developmental changes in their conceptions of ability and, in part, due to systematic changes in school context. Dweck and her colleagues (see Dweck, 1999) also predicted that performance goals should get more prominent as children go through school because they develop a more entity view of intelligence as they get older and that children holding an entity view of intelligence are more likely to adopt performance goals. Evidence supports these predictions (see Dweck, 1999; Midgley, 2002). In terms of mental health and engagement, this developmental shift is likely to lead more to increased disengagement and lower self-esteem for those children who have difficulty with school-based learning tasks.

It is also likely that the relation of goals to performance changes with age due to the changing meaning of ability and effort. Butler's work is directly related to this hypothesis. In a series of studies looking at how competitive and noncompetitive conditions, and task and ego-focused conditions, influence pre- and elementary school aged children's interests, motivation self-evaluations, she identified several developmental changes: First, competition decreased children's subsequent interest in a task only among children who judged their ability based on how their performance compared to the performances of other children (Butler, 1989a, 1990). Competition also increased older, but not younger, children's tendency to engage in social comparison (Butler, 1989a, 1989b). Second, although children of all ages engaged in social comparison, younger children seemed to be using the social comparison information primarily to determine how well they were mastering the task; in contrast the older children seemed to be using the social comparison information primarily as a way ofjudging their own ability (Butler, 1989b). As a result, the younger children were able to use the social comparison information to improve their performance. In contrast, engaging in social comparison had more mixed consequences for the older students. If they were doing better than the other children, they felt good about themselves and their competence; if they were doing worse than other children, they felt bad about themselves and were not able to effectively use the social comparison information to improve their own performance. Instead, they tended to withdraw from the activity and to evidence learned helpless behaviors. Third, whereas, 5-, 7-, and 10-year-old-children's self-evaluations were quite accurate under mastery conditions, under competitive conditions 5- and 7-year-olds inflated their performance self-evaluations more than 10-year-olds (Butler, 1990). Apparently the influence of situationally-induced performance goals on children's self-evaluations depends on the children's age and cognitive sophistication.

Finally, Butler and Ruzany (1993) found evidence that different patterns of socialization influence children's ability assessments and reasons for social comparison. In a study comparing kibbutz-reared with city-reared Israeli children, the kibbutz children adopted a normative ability concept earlier than urban children. However, only the urban children's reasons for engaging in social comparison were influenced by their concept of ability: once they adopted a normative view they used social comparison to compare their abilities to those of other children. In contrast, the kibbutz children used social comparison primarily for mastery reasons, regardless of their conception of ability.


In this section, we have reviewed the evidence for changes in children's goals for doing school work. Because interest in this area of motivation is fairly recent, much less empirical and theoretical work has been done on developmental changes; most of the work has focused instead on individual differences in goal orientation. The little available developmental work reveals a pattern of change not unlike the patterns discussed earlier for expectancy-related beliefs and values. At the population level, there appears to be an increase in ego-focused goals and competitive motivation. Given what we know about individual differences in goal orientation, such a shift is likely to lead at least some children (particularly those doing poorly in school) to disengage from school as they get older. We talk more about this in the sections on motivational problems and self-worth theory.

In the next section, we focus on work directly linking motivational constructs to healthy functioning. Much of this work has grown out of concern over particular motivational problems like test anxiety and learned helpless. We discuss this work first. More recently, researchers have been studying the link between motivational constructs and mental health directly. We discuss this work second.

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