Goal-directed behavior is purposeful and intentional actions taken to achieve a specific objective or desired outcome.
This behavior involves deliberate actions and choices made to attain a pre-determined goal.
For example, a person who sets a goal to lose weight may engage in goal-directed behavior by adhering to a strict diet and exercise regimen, with the aim of achieving their desired weight loss target.
It is beneficial because it provides people with a sense of purpose and direction. It helps them to prioritize and efficiently deploy their efforts and resources. This behavior also fosters motivation and a sense of accomplishment whenever people make progress toward their goals, enhancing their overall well-being and satisfaction in life.
Goal-Directed Behavior Definition
Goal-directed behavior is a concept that emerges from the operant conditioning subfield of behaviorist psychology (Gollwitzer & Schaal, 2012)1. This subfield focuses on the relationship between (dis)incentives and the likelihood that a behavior will occur.
To put it simply, rewards and punishments can increase or decrease the likelihood that a behavior will occur in the future.
These theorists propose that goal-directed behavior is behavior that works toward a reward for meeting a specific goal.
Steinglass and Foerde (2016)2 provide this definition:
“Goal-directed behavior is defined as that which is driven explicitly by a desired outcome or reward, whereas habitual behavior is defined as relatively insensitive to the desirability of an outcome.”
For instance, if we work on our garden to achieve the goal of creating a meal from our food, we’re engaging in goal-directed behavior. But if we scroll on our phone mindlessly for an hour as a form of procrastination, we’re engaged in habitual behavior.
Three Key Features
Gollwitzer and Schaal (2012, p. 143)3 identified three observable features of goal-directed behavior:
- Persistence: The person (or animal) engages in the behavior until the goal is reached or is deemed unobtainable.
- Appropriateness: The person or animal engages in behavior that is appropriate for meeting the goal. If the goal moves or an obstacle gets in the way, the behavior changes in order to find a new, more appropriate, way to achieve the goal.
- Searching: Restlessness or hyperactivity is evident when a person has strong desire for the goal. We might call this strong motivation.
Goal-Directed Behavior Examples
1. Studying for a High Grade
The goal-directed behavior in this scenario involves the student engaging in a rigorous study routine to understand and master the required material for the examination.
The student’s actions are intentional and purposeful, as they allocate specific time slots for studying, seek additional resources, and perhaps engage in group study sessions to enhance their understanding and retention of the material.
Additionally, their behavior exhibits persistence as they continue to adhere to their study regimen despite potential challenges, such as distractions or initial difficulty with the material, until they feel adequately prepared for the examination.
Lastly, the appropriateness feature is seen when the student seeks tutoring or modifies their study techniques in response to a realization that their current methods are not yielding the desired understanding or retention, thereby aligning their actions to better meet their goal of achieving a high grade on the final examination.
2. Training for a Marathon
The goal-directed behavior in this scenario involves an individual committing to a disciplined training regimen to prepare for and compete in a marathon.
The individual’s actions are intentional and purposeful, as they set a training schedule, adhere to a nutritious diet, and progressively increase their running distances to build endurance and strength.
Their behavior exhibits persistence as they continue with their training regimen regardless of weather conditions, physical discomfort, or other potential obstacles, aiming to steadily improve their performance and readiness for the marathon.
Lastly, the appropriateness feature is seen when the individual modifies their training plan, perhaps by incorporating more hill runs or seeking guidance from a running coach, in response to identified weaknesses or new information, thereby aligning their actions to better meet their goal of successfully competing in the marathon.
3. Saving for a Home Purchase
The goal-directed behavior in this scenario involves an individual setting aside a portion of their income regularly to accumulate enough funds for a down payment on a house.
The individual’s actions are intentional and purposeful, as they create a budget, cut down on unnecessary expenses, and perhaps take up a part-time job to save more money.
Their behavior exhibits persistence as they continue to adhere to their saving plan despite facing temptations to spend or unexpected expenses, keeping their focus on the long-term goal.
Lastly, the appropriateness feature is seen when the individual adjusts their saving plan, maybe by finding additional sources of income or reducing further expenses, in response to changes in housing prices or their financial circumstances, thereby aligning their actions to better meet their goal of purchasing a house.
Benefits and Limitations of Goal-Directed Behavior
Goal-directed behavior may sound like it is highly beneficial, and it is. But it still has its limitations.
Its greatest benefit is that it often enhances motivation, provides direction, and can improve efficiency and productivity by giving us a clear focus and path forward (Clear, 2018)4.
However, such behavior can lead to stress and burnout, especially when the goals are particularly challenging (Ernst, 2014)5.
Moreover, an intense focus on set goals can sometimes make people overlook other potential opportunities or goals they should also strive toward. For example, a workaholic is so goal-directed in their focus on career that they may neglect leisure, family, or even a lateral career move that might make them happier.
The following table outlines some more benefits and limitations:
|Benefits of Goal-Directed Behavior||Limitations of Goal-Directed Behavior|
|It can enhance internal drive by giving you a focus on achieving specific objectives and with reaching specific rewards.||It can cause excessive pressure and stress, and occasionally lead to burnout. This is evident, for example, in schools with a strong focus on getting high scores on standardized tests.|
|It can provide a clear sense of direction and purpose, helping you to prioritize your tasks and clarify resource allocation for efficiency.||People with tunnel visions on certain goals can be rigid and inflexible, failing to see the bigger picture.|
|Productivity can be enhanced when clear goals are in place, preventing us from fiddling around with unimportant tasks.||Achievements might only provide transient happiness and not guarantee long-term contentment.|
|Engaging in goal-directed behavior often necessitates and thus fosters self-regulation.||It can stifle creativity when the focus is entirely on meeting an outcome rather than using divergent thinking to find multiple possible paths forward.|
|Goal-directed behavior often helps us in skill development as it necessitates learning and adapting to meet goals.||Goal pursuit may overshadow vital aspects of physical and mental health and strain interpersonal relationships.|
|The achievement of goals can boost self-esteem and perceived competence among peers.||Goal-directed behavior as defined by the operant conditioning theory is focused on extrinsic rewards, which may be short-lived.|
Prerequisites for Goal-Directed Behavior
Goal-directed behavior is often seen to be a feature of motivation. A person who is motivated (by rewards, or, by other non-operant objectives), is more inclined to set goals on their own accord than a person who is unmotivated.
There are several theories as to how people become motivated. Perhaps most relevant to our discussion is goal setting theory.
1. Goal-Setting Theory
Locke believed that when goals are clear and people receive feedback on their performance, it leads to higher levels of motivation and job performance.
The theory outlines five principles of effective goal setting:
- Clarity: Clear goals provide a sense of direction and standards of performance
- Challenge: Challenging goals encourage individuals to put in extra effort and push their performance beyond what they normally would.
- Commitment: Commitment to goals is critical for goal attainment; individuals are more likely to be committed when they are involved in the goal-setting process.
- Feedback: Regular feedback on progress towards goals also enhances motivation, as it allows individuals to adjust their effort levels and strategies.
- Task complexity: Task complexity can influence motivation. If a task is too complex and individuals feel overwhelmed by it, they may be less likely to be motivated to work towards the goal (Locke & Latham, 2019)7.
With these principles in place, we may achieve greater motivation to work toward our stated goals.
2. Expectancy Theory
Vroom suggested that people’s motivation towards performing a certain behavior or task is influenced by their perception of three factors: expectancy, instrumentality, and valence.
- Expectancy is the belief that increased effort will lead to improved performance, the likelihood that your efforts will get recognized or lead to a certain outcome.
- Instrumentality is the belief that a person will actually receive the desired outcome if they perform well.
- Valence refers to the value the individual personally places on the rewards or outcomes. People are thought to be motivated when they believe that their efforts will lead to good performance, that good performance will lead to the desired outcome, and that they will find the outcome valuable (Ernst, 2014)10.
3. Two-Factor Theory
This theory, proposed by Frederick Herzberg in 1959, asserts there are two sets of factors that influence motivation in the workplace: hygiene factors and growth factors (Alshmemri, Shahwan-Akl & Maude, 2017; Herzberg, 1966)11,12.
- Hygiene Factors: The first set, known as hygiene factors, can cause job dissatisfaction if they are absent or inadequate, but their presence doesn’t necessarily motivate employees. These include salary, benefits, work conditions, company policies, relationships with colleagues and supervisors, and job security.
- Growth Factors: The second set, known as motivators or growth factors, are elements that lead to satisfaction by fulfilling individuals’ needs for meaning and personal growth. These include the work itself, recognition, promotions, responsibility, and opportunities for personal growth and achievement (Herzberg, 1966)13.
I’ve provided a lot of resources on this website to help you achieve your goals. Your next step might be to write up your 5-year plan and 10-year plan with my guides:
Alshmemri, M., Shahwan-Akl, L., & Maude, P. (2017). Herzberg’s two-factor theory. Life Science Journal, 14(5), 12-16.
Boekaerts, M. (2009). Goal-directed behavior in the classroom. Handbook of motivation at school, 105-122.
Ernst, D. (2014). Expectancy theory outcomes and student evaluations of teaching. Educational Research and Evaluation, 20(7-8), 536-556.
Gollwitzer, P. & Schaal, B. (2012). How goals and plans affect action. In Collis, J. M., Messick, S. J., & Schiefele, U. (Eds.). Intelligence and Personality: Bridging the Gap in Theory and Measurement. (pp. 143 – 166). London: Taylor & Francis Group.
Herzberg, F. (1966). Work and the Nature of Man. Cleveland: World Publishing.
Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2019). The development of goal setting theory: A half century retrospective. Motivation Science, 5(2), 93.
Steinglass, J. & Foerde, K. (2016). How does an*ea nervosa become resistant to change? In Le Grange, D., Lacey, H., Hay, P., & Touyz, S. (Eds.). Managing Severe and Enduring Ano*a Nervosa: A Clinician’s Guide. Taylor & Francis.
Vroom, V. (2005). On the Origins of Expectancy Theory. In: Smith, K. G., & Hitt, M. A. (Eds.). Great minds in management: The process of theory development. OUP Oxford.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]