When performance goals become dysfunctional: An investigation of the effects of difficulty on performance goals

Shamala Kumar, Purdue University


Nicholls' (1984) and Dweck's (1986) proposed two process oriented achievement goal frameworks in which they described how ego-involved individuals react to experiences of difficulty. Nicholls (1984) suggested that ego-involved individuals would initially approach an achievement task with the goal of endeavoring to perform well relative to others. However, he stated that experiences of difficulty could change the focus from attempting to perform better than others to attempting to not fail relative to others. Sustained failure, he suggested, would result in withdrawal from the task and a desire to leave the achievement situation with the use of minimal effort. He stated that these changes in individuals' goals were a direct result of changes in their perceptions of ability and that changes in individuals' ego-involving goals would predict changes in individuals' behavior and affect. Dweck (1986) described a similar experience for ego-involved individuals. However, she suggested that changes in individuals' goals would be the result of changes in their confidence in how intelligent they are and not their perceptions of ability. That is, she suggested that with experiences of difficulty, ego-involved individuals were likely to show a decline in confidence, which would result in changes in the nature of their goals. However, she also proposed that decline in confidence would be most dramatic for entity theorists. These achievement goal frameworks were studied using a longitudinal experimental design in which some participants experienced a gradual increase in difficulty over time while others experienced the same level of difficulty over time. At each of three sessions participants' self perceptions of ability, achievement goals, performance and affective reactions were measured in addition to their performance on the task. Results revealed that individuals' goals change as a function of experiences of difficulty and individuals' perceptions of ability but not their confidence in their intelligence predict changes in goals. Additionally, theory of intelligence was not predictive of change in confidence over time. Hypotheses concerning the relationship between changes in achievement goals and outcome behaviors were only partially supported. Overall, the results provide support for Nicholls (1984) model but less support for Dweck (1986).




Jagacinski, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Occupational psychology

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