Goal Striving, Need Satisfaction, and Longitudinal Well-Being: The Self-Concordance Model

{Sheldon & Elliot, 1999. Goal Striving, Need Satisfaction, and Longitudinal Well-Being: The Self-Concordance Model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 76, No. 3}

The Self-Concordance Model

Conation is the human capacity to set and pursue personal agendas. Conative processes involve the individual’s proactive efforts to attain outcomes and thus meet their needs and can be conceptually distinguished from cognitive and affective processes. The conative process is the motivational sequence that begins at goal inception and continues through the period in which goals are pursued and either attained or abandoned.

To ensure follow through with set goals, as well as become happier than before when set goals are attained, factors of goal-striving and attainment and factors connecting goal attainment to changes in wellbeing must be addressed.

Self-concordance of individuals’ goal-systems refers to the degree to which stated goals express enduring interests and values.

The Inception-to-Attainment Process

Self-determination theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 1985) defines goals as self-concordant when pursued by either intrinsic or identified motivation. Intrinsic motivation originates in strong interests, and identified motivation originates in self-identified personal convictions or core values; in either case, goals are said to be integrated with the self. Such goals tend to have an internal perceived locus of causality; that is, they are felt to emanate directly from self-choice. They also represent and express the person’s genuine interests and values which are relatively enduring facets of personality leading to sustained effort over time and self-integrated action.

The word self refers to the more-or-less integrated center of agentic activity. This is the subject-oriented concept of self (the “I” of Mead and James, the “proprium” of Allport, or the “transcendent function” of Jung) rather than the object-oriented concept of self (the “Me” of Mead, the looking glass self of Cooley, or the multifaceted self-concept of contemporary social psychology).

The phenomenal self has the potential to take control of the person (the bio-cognitive machinery) in such a way as to maximize organismic need satisfaction. This potential will be realized when individuals select goals representing the interests and values of their evolving self-system.

During deliberation, people ponder which goals to select. When people are in touch with their holistic self-feelings, they can make fully informed choices leading to self-integrated action. Lacking this information, they may choose goals dictated by others, by transient impulses or incentives, or by introjected “shoulds” or “oughts.”

Individuals pursuing self-concordant goals put more sustained effort into achieving those goals and, thus, are more likely to attain them.

Goal Self-Concordance –> Sustained Effort –> Goal Attainment

Self-concordant goals do not necessarily feel good, nor are they necessarily self-gratifying. One might willingly pursue an objective from which one derives no experiential enjoyment if the unpleasant task is guided by mature, self-disciplined valuation. The key distinction is not whether the goal is pleasurable but whether the person feels ownership as she pursues the goal.

In contrast, goals pursued only because of external pushes or introjected sanctions characterized by anxiety and guilt are said to emerge from a nonintegrated region of the person leading to nonintegrated action. The felt locus of causality for such behavior tends to be outside of the sense of self. The person pursuing such goals may feel in the grip of forces to which she does not give full assent, resulting in controlledness. Volitional strength in goal pursuit is likely to fade when obstacles are encountered.

Controlledness can predict initial effort intentions but not actual effort some weeks later and thus does not affect eventual goal attainment.

Autonomy or self-concordance is associated with initial effort intentions, as well as actual effort some weeks later and thus with the level of goal attainment observed.

The Attainment-to-Wellbeing Process

Those who attain self-concordant goals reap greater wellbeing benefits from their attainment. These effects are mediated by need satisfaction, i.e., daily activity-based experiences of autonomy, competence, and relatedness that accumulate during the period of striving. These effects are independent of the effects of self-efficacy, implementation intentions, avoidance framing, and life skills.

Goal Self-Concordance & Goal Attainment –> Need Satisfying Experiences –> Changes in Wellbeing

Achieving goals feels good. But not all progress is beneficial. Individuals whose goals are not self-integrated experience little change in wellbeing, no matter how well they progress in achieving their goals. Non-concordant goals, even when attained, do not satisfy important psychological needs, even though one can find natural satisfactions in exercising one’s competencies to move toward desired outcomes.

In contrast, self-concordant goal attainment enhances feelings of wellbeing. However, individuals who fail to attain self-concordant goals experience a decrement in wellbeing.

The self-concordance concept is similar to the concept of congruence offered by Rogers (1961). Congruence occurs when an individual’s self-concept is aligned with who he or she is in reality, when self-concept and organismic conditions agree with each other. Goals are one type of self-concept, and when they are concordant with the true self, people may be able to meet their psychological needs since it is more likely that self-concordant goal-attainment will afford the experiences of autonomy, competence, and relatedness that are essential to enhanced wellbeing.

Individuals with more self-concordant goals are expected to try harder and thus do better at achieving their goals, on average, feeling more effective and competent in many of the daily activities they engage in. Spending more time engaged in autonomous (i.e., freely chosen and meaningful) behavior, many of their activities will effectively express their evolving interests and personal values. They also tend to have stronger feelings of relatedness to others because many self-concordant goals involve helping others, the community, or both. These individuals are also typically more empathic and better able to communicate with others in a non-defensive and open manner.

This is the bridge to why self-concordant goal attainment is associated with stronger activity-based experiences of competence, autonomy, and relatedness. The accumulation of these three types of experiences over time leads to an increase in longitudinal wellbeing. Experiences characterized by feelings of task competence, self-agency, and interpersonal relatedness are positive experiences on which people base their judgments of current wellbeing because humans have innate needs for these three sorts of experiences. All three qualities of experience help make for a good day, i.e., independently predict daily positive mood, vitality, and physical health.

A word on needs

Social motives of intimacy, achievement, and power orient individuals toward particular classes of behavior or incentives and are said to energize behavior.

Needs are experience qualities universally required by human beings to thrive. According to SDT, humans have three basic psychological needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness: feeling that one is effective and able in one’s behavior, rather than ineffective and inept; feeling that one’s behavior is self-chosen and meaningful, as opposed to coerced and pressured; and feeling that one is connected to or in harmony with important others, rather than alienated or marginalized. Each type of experience in this set provides distinct psychological nutriments that sustain wellbeing and continued motivation and afford distinct adaptive and selective advantages.

Conclusions of the study

“Not all personal goals are personal” and “not all progress is beneficial.”

Goals are unique cognitive structures invested with motivational energy. To the extent that goals do not represent or tap authentic self-based values and interests, the infusion of goals with energy may be temporary. Congruence between self-concepts and deeper experience ensures the continued flow of this motivational energy. It is, however, important that personal goals accurately represent the actual condition of the organism in which they arise.

There are several ways the conative system can go wrong. One way is when the individual does not succeed in selecting goals consistent with her values and interests. Another way is when values and interests are distorted or skewed, and even though sustained effort and gratification from attainment may ensue, deeper need satisfaction may be failed. This is especially the case when relatedness needs are ignored. Goals should be checked concerning their benign and prosocial quality.

Individuals do better at self-concordant goals because they put more sustained effort into them. Goals that do not represent the interests and values of the true self may not receive sustained energization despite the person’s initially strong effort intentions.

Attaining self-concordant goals leads to the largest degree of enhanced wellbeing. Attaining goals that do not express one’s deeper interests and values may leave one not much better off, in terms of mood and life satisfaction, than before.

Need satisfaction is assumed to be an important cause of wellbeing outcomes.

Accumulating activity-based experiences of competence, autonomy, and relatedness over time predicts enhanced wellbeing at the end of that time. These three types of experiences are the psychological nutriments necessary for enhanced wellbeing and psychological development.

When goals are self-concordant, goal progress during a period will result in accumulating more of these types of activity-based experiences.

Effects of self-efficacy expectancies, implementation intentions, avoidance framing, and life skills have their own effects on the conative process. The effects of self-concordance are not empirically reducible to any of them.

Bottom-up influences on wellbeing emerge from the sum of many specific positive experiences. Top-down influences on wellbeing affect wellbeing directly through global dispositions or attitudes that color people’s interpretation of their daily experiences.

Need-satisfying activity-based experiences exemplify a bottom-up influence on wellbeing.

In addition to promoting such experiences, goal attainment also provides a broader, top-down influence on wellbeing by positively influencing individuals’ general self-efficacy, positive life circumstances, approval from others, or a combination of these.

Psychological need satisfaction is largely a matter of being fully engaged and involved in one’s daily life. Needs are construed as involving “experiential inputs,” the accumulation of which translates into judgments of increased wellbeing. Being able to recall many affectively positive experiences increases judgments of wellbeing. Competence, autonomy, and relatedness are the sorts of positive experiences on which people make these judgments.

Acquiring phenomenal ownership of action is a crucial developmental and self-regulatory task.

The self-concordance model extends self-determination theory by addressing individuals’ proactive and self-generated initiatives for life-improvement and self-expansion, not just their responses to situational or domain-specific forces, and provides a detailed longitudinal account of one means by which self-determination influences wellbeing.

Sustained effort is predicted from self-concordance, efficacy expectations, implementation intentions, life skills, and avoidance framing. Other factors influencing sustained effort could include volitional competence (i.e., motivational maintenance skills), the difficulty or specificity of goals, the level of abstraction, or the social or material support enjoyed by the goal striver.

Self-Concordance Across Cultures

Humans function more optimally and have more positive experiences when they do what they enjoy and believe in, no matter their cultural membership.

Goals are among the most important ways individuals adapt to social contexts and enhance connectivity. Many goals concern the external world, especially social roles and interpersonal concerns. The fact that many personal goals address social tasks is only logical, given that the primary adaptive environment for Homo sapiens throughout history has been the social environment.

Perceived locus of causality (PLOC) can be used to measure self-concordance. The question is, does a person engage in goal-pursuits with a sense that “I” chose them (an internal perceived locus of causality, or I-PLOC)? Or does a person pursue goals with a sense that his or her situation is the source of the goals (an external perceived locus of causality, E-PLOC)?

Self-concordance (i.e., greater I-PLOC than E-PLOC) is associated with concurrent subjective wellbeing (SWB) and predicts longitudinal increases in SWB through greater goal attainment inspired by self-concordance.

For example, the student who practices piano with a sense of interest and conviction is typically happier than the student who practices with a sense of pressure and obligation. This student also improves his or her playing more rapidly, perhaps becoming even happier.

Different types of social behavior are internalized differently within different cultures. Having an I-PLOC regarding behavior predicts SWB in every culture. From research in different cultures, we conclude that internal motivation is related to positive coping, whereas external or “controlled” motivation is associated with maladaptive coping; I-PLOC on the job predicts work engagement, job performance, and psychological wellbeing.  

Self-concordant goal pursuit is important in all cultures. Students (piano or otherwise) in every culture benefit more when they strive because they enjoy and identify with the learning rather than feeling they must or should. In other words, when one goes along with strong social forces, it is likely better to reach a state of agreement with them than to resist or resent them. This conclusion is consistent with all perspectives regarding optimal human functioning, which stress the importance of individuals’ ability to assimilate and accommodate sociocultural norms, expectations, and constraints.

Cross-cultural comparisons indicate that associations of self-concordance with SWB represent more than the effects of family education, family income, or individual goal contents. External and introjected motivation are negatively correlated with aggregate SWB in every sample, and intrinsic and identified motivation are positively correlated with SWB in every sample, supporting the hypothesis that Self-concordance may have universal benefits. Furthermore, mean levels of self-concordance are positive in every culture sample, indicating that people feel more autonomous than controlled in every culture. Finally, self-concordance correlates only weakly with demographic variables and with a measure of self-focused (versus group-focused) content of individuals’ goals. Taken together, these findings suggest that it is possible for people to “own their goals” everywhere, regardless of their cultural membership, their income, family education, and the concrete focus of the goals.

Self-focused versus other-focused

The individualism/collectivism distinction is largely independent of the concordance/non-concordance distinction. In other words, one might engage in either collectivist or individualist behaviors with either a sense of self-ownership or a sense of being controlled by non-assimilated forces. Few or weak correlations of self-focus with self-concordance exist.

Self-focused goals are undertaken primarily to serve the needs and preferences of the self. In contrast, other-focused goals are undertaken primarily to serve the needs and preferences of social groups, such as family, team, club, or friends.

Motivation continuum and cultural mean differences

According to SDT, we can locate motivation on a continuum of internalization, ranging from external motivation (the person acts with a feeling of being controlled by external pressures or contingencies) to introjected motivation (the person acts with a feeling of being controlled by his or her own internal processes) to identified motivation (the person acts with a sense of choice and volition, even if he or she does not enjoy the action) to intrinsic motivation (the person acts because the activity is inherently interesting and challenging).

Cultural differences may exist in the strength of social pressures, obligations, and expectations. In more traditional or collectivist cultures, it is not necessarily the case that one observes greater introjection. It is also possible that prosocial norms in such cultures help people to more fully internalize imposed motivations, leading to less introjection overall. Although introjection is associated with lower SWB in all cultures, there are no cultural mean differences in introjection.

Similarly, external motivation depends on the person’s PLOC for the behavior. One might strive to please one’s parents with a sense of being controlled by unassimilated forces or wholeheartedly wanting to please them. Positive relations with SWB are expected to the extent that the latter is true. Again, because the internalization process might actually be better supported in non-Western than in Western cultures, there are no cultural mean differences in external motivation. However, external motivation is associated with lower SWB in all cultures.

External and introjected motivations are classified as non-concordant and potentially problematic because the person does not fully assent to his or her own behavior.

In contrast, identified and intrinsic motivations are classified as concordant and more beneficial because the person fully accepts them and because these motivations represent more central and stable aspects of the person.

Intrinsic motivation represents the organism’s self-initiated attempts to learn about the world and master new skills. It is defined in terms of people’s sense of interest and engagement in their personal goals and the enjoyment associated with them. Intrinsic goals tend to be beneficial in every culture. People can find ways to be intrinsically motivated in almost any culture.

Identified motivation represents the extent to which external prescriptions have been internalized into the self. SDT maintains that people can follow tradition, obey rules, and defer to others to no harmful effect as long as they identify with the behavior and enact it willingly – indeed, in this case, pursuing externally mandated goals may be positive. Identified motivation tends to be beneficial in every culture. No cultural differences exist in mean levels of identified motivation.