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Goal-Setting Theory


Explanations > Theories > Goal-Setting Theory

Description | Research |So What? | See also | References 



In order to direct ourselves we set ourselves goals that are:

  • Clear (not vague) and understandable, so we know what to do and what not to do.
  • Challenging, so we will be stimulated and not be bored.
  • Achievable, so we are unlikely to fail.

If other people set us goals without our involvement, then we are much less likely to be motivated to work hard at it than if we feel we have set or directed the goal ourselves.


When we are working in the task, we need feedback so we can determine whether we are succeeding or whether we need to change direction. We find feedback (if it is sympathetically done) very encouraging and motivating. This includes feedback from ourselves. Negative self-talk is just as demotivating as negative comments from other people.

Directional and accuracy goals

Depending on the type of goal we have, we will go about achieving it differently.

A directional goal is one where we are motivated to arrive at a particular conclusion. We will thus narrow our thinking, selecting beliefs, etc. that support the conclusion. The lack of deliberation also tends to make us more optimistic about achieving the goal.

An accuracy goal is one where we are motivated to arrive at the most accurate possible conclusion. These occur when the cost of being inaccurate is high. Unsurprisingly, people invest more effort in achieving accuracy goals, as any deviation costs, and a large deviation may well more. Their deliberation also makes them realize that there is a real chance that they will not achieve their goal. When we have an accuracy goal we do not get to a 'good enough' point and stop thinking about it--we continue to search for improvements. 

Both methods work by influencing our choice of beliefs and decision-making rules.


Tetlock and Kim motivated people to use accuracy goals by giving them a task and telling them they would have to explain their thinking. The people wrote more cognitively complex responses than the control group.

So what?

Using it

If you want someone to deliberately think about what they are doing, give them an accuracy goal. 


Choose your own goals. Notice the difference between when you are diving into action and when you are carefully thinking.

See also

Challenge, Confirmation Bias, Elaboration Likelihood Model, Satisficing



Locke and Latham (1990), Tetlock and Kim (1987)


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