Goal setting: I/O theory

For my work recently I’ve been reading a lot of psychology handbook chapters because psychologists are often decades ahead of my field in terms of behavioral theories and experiments and I’m trying to figure out what their baseline is before reinventing the wheel. In this reading, I came across a tangential (to my work) section on goal setting. With all the PF and academic bloggers setting their goals/resolutions etc. or refusing to do so, I thought it would make an interesting post to discuss what people who actually study this stuff say. (Disclaimer: I am not one of those people and my knowledge on this subject comes entirely from Diefendorff and Chandler, “Motivating Employees” in the APA Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Volume 3, 2010.)

One method of looking at “action goals and effort during goal striving” (p.89) is by breaking them down into valence, instrumentality, and expectancy. Valence is the “desirability, attractiveness, importance or anticipated satisfaction with outcomes associated with goal pursuit,” both positive and negative. Instrumentality is the expected probability that the goal will lead to the expected outcomes. Expectancy is a perceived link between effort and performance.

The interesting part about these typologies is the way the authors break down and combine these concepts to make predictions about motivation.

All three items must exist and be positive or there will be no motivation to work on a goal (they cite Vroom 1964 and Donovan 2001).

Without high valence, the goal is just not one worth pursuing. I could have a goal to be a garbage collector or an actuary, and I might be a darned good one, but really my heart is just not in it.

Without high instrumentality, you don’t think there’s a link between achieving your goal and reaching the outcome you want to reach. You may give up on paying down debt because it will take too long to get out of debt and thus see any real improvement.

If there’s high valence and high instrumentality but low expectancy, then there’s no point in working on the goal. You may really want the goal, and think that achieving the goal will lead to the right outcomes… but you don’t see how any effort in your part will lead to you reaching the goal. For instance, if any time you get ahead monetarily, one of your relatives “borrows” money from you never to return, then there is no point in saving.

Have you had any goals or resolutions break down because of low valence (turns out you didn’t really want to achieve that goal), low instrumentality (can’t make link between goal and desired outcome), or low expectancy (don’t see how your effort is going to lead to accomplishing the goal)?

What do you think of this typology? Is it missing anything big?

Also, if we didn’t link to your list of goals, feel free to drop yours in the comments section.

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30 Responses to “Goal setting: I/O theory”

  1. First Gen American Says:

    Money Reasons just had a post about being Super and why most people do not set goals to be #1. My theory (completely based on nothing) was that it’s too hard to get to that #1 slot in life, so people are okay at being mediocre. Related to weight loss, I said it’s easier to commit to running a 5 K than winning one.

    So in this case, being the “Best” at anything really has low expectancy. You can train til you’re blue in the face and still not win a race.

    Interesting thanks.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Agreed, but I’ll take that one step further.

      MR is always talking about optimizing things for which there isn’t actually one optimum. Like he wants to optimize raising his kids.

      So in a race, #1 is actually something that’s defined. In most of life, you can’t even define who #1 is. Who is the “best” academic? There are a lot of Nobel prize winners out there.

  2. retirebyforty Says:

    It’s very academia. I see their point, but who in the real world analyzes their process that much? :)
    Thanks for the link!
    Happy New Year!!!

  3. Money Reasons Says:

    I’m bucking the trend because the formalized process didn’t work for me last year. The process was correct, but my heart wasn’t there. So ironically, this year I’m following a process that should be doomed to fail, but I don’t think it will.

    This year, I think I’ll be the anomaly :) But more importantly, if I follow through correctly, I will live a better, more enhanced life (albeit slowly and over a lifetime).

    Thanks for the link :)

      • Money Reasons Says:

        Thanks I’ll need it! It’ll still be a daunting task, but I’m excited :)

        Say think from mentioning my article in your comment on J.D’s site. I got around 20 additional visitors today from that (yay)!

        Ironically, I actually did your suggestion a few months ago, but he never got back to me.

        Personally, I think it’s an interesting experiment but when I tried to socialize it, nobody really paid attention to it. But it’s so cool…

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I know he lost a whole ton of email– you should shoot him another email! I know that’s a post I would want to read. AND worth a ton of additional visitors to your blog once it goes up. :)

  4. Everyday Tips Says:

    Well, I do agree with the theory. You gotta be able to attain it, want it, and connect it. If you can’t do those things, whether consciously or not, then maybe you need to rethink your goal, depending on who you are.

    I personally need little victories, the ability to quanitify my goal, and the ability to attain it. Baby steps are crucial for me because if I just see one big goal and not the footprints to get there, then I may fail. It is all individual in my opinion, as everyone has different motivators.

  5. LindyMint Says:

    I think that’s why a lot of the 2010 goal check blog posts are showing a 50% success rate. When you sit down and write your year goals, I’m sure some of those fall into a “wouldn’t it be nice if I could be like this” category. But it isn’t necessarily something you want to achieve or feel like you can.

    If you compare setting goals to say, a soccer goal, the “goal” is what you want to achieve and will try to achieve, but not necessarily what you will.

    PS: I can tell I’ve been out of academia for a while, I really had to concentrate to read that language up there. My internet brain is becoming soft!

  6. Jackie Says:

    I’ve definitely had goals break down in the past because it turned out that I didn’t really want it. But, to me that’s more of an opportunity to learn about myself than a bad thing. In the very distant past, I gave up (temporarily) on a goal because I just didn’t see how it was ever going to happen. (And it was similar to the example you gave above.)

  7. Niki Says:

    I really like this, because of the analyzing. I think it is a key factor in the achievement.
    I never really had goals set or resolutions before, this is the first year. I thought if I could realize some of the factors that would cause me to fail, I could be prepared to avoid those hurtles. I am in it to win it.
    I don’t want a goal just to have a goal, I understand the thought behind “well, at least I tried” I just don’t want that.
    Thanks for the great post.

  8. Debbie M Says:

    Only three things? And two of them sound the same to me? (Instrumentality and expectancy both sound like you think that actions you take could lead to achieving your goal. Either that or valance and expectancy both sound like you actually like your goal.)

    Okay, they’re only looking at effort toward achieving the goal, not chance of achieving the goal. How about these factors instead?

    1. Value the goal. (Okay, I may as well start with the obvious, like they did. It’s not enough that the doctor or your boss want the goal; you have to want it yourself, even if it’s just a way to get your doctor or boss to leave you alone.)

    2. Feel the goal is in reach, something you could actually do. (If you think you’re doomed and that things are out of control anyway, you probably won’t put effort into the goal.)

    3. Decide to work on the goal–decide that it’s worth the trouble right now. (We can’t have everything we want and we don’t try for it all at once. Obviously, trying for it will lead to more effort. Hitting rock bottom, like no longer being able to afford minimum credit card payments, can lead to wanting to becoming willing to take action.)

    4. Learn strategies for achieving the goal. (If you haven’t achieved the goal already, it might be that you don’t even know how. Books, friends, and the internet are good for teaching you things like how to do things yourself, how to prioritize, and how many options their are for things like clothes shopping and investing.)

    5. Reserve time, energy, and other needed resources for working toward the goal. (We can decide we’d like to do things but then never get around to actually doing them. Waiting until the end of the work day or not getting enough sleep may not help. For example, you could set specific times to record your purchases such as once a week when you’re refreshed and not rushed or as you make them so you won’t forget.)

    6. Get support (and/or shoot to disprove the naysayers). (Supporters and naysayers can keep this near the top of your social list as well as your personal list. Friends, support groups, bloggers, and even little reminders around your environment can serve this purpose.)

    7. See results. (This is why people sometimes recommend paying off small loans first, even if they don’t have the highest interest rate or throwing their change into a jar even if they have to pay a percentage to cash in that change.)

    Your baby steps can help with several of these areas–helping people see that there is something they can do right now that will have a real (if small) effect right away.

    I bet you can get even more ideas by looking at research done on achieving specific goals such as losing weight, curing phobias, stopping drinking, or handling grief.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      My fault for not being incredibly clear. Effort –> Goals (this is more specific) –> Desired Outcomes (this is more general or generic). So instrumentality is the link between Goals and Outcomes, Expectancy is the link between Effort and Goals. I think.

  9. Comrade PhysioProf Says:

    My personal experience is that if your goal is a destination, then you are almost certainly f***ed. But if your goal is a process or route, then fulfillment is very possible.

  10. Jacq @ Single Mom Rich Mom Says:

    I’m with Comrade, I do process goals almost entirely. New Years res post coming up on that.

  11. 2011 A New Start | Money Reasons Says:

    […] Rumblings from the Untenured:  Goal setting: I/O theory – Interesting analysis of New Year’s Resolutions and really goals in […]

  12. Karen Says:

    I think grad school is suffering from a massive failure of instrumentality right now– doing what you’re supposed to (dissertation, publications) may not yield any jobs in your field, let alone a good one.

    I’m almost ABD and I think this is fueling a lot of people’s general malaise right now.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Yeah, that’s a really good point. I wouldn’t have wanted to be a humanities PhD student before the recession, and now it seems even more chancy. Before you get too far, I recommend reading Your Money or Your Life by Dominguez and Robin, just to help you think about all your options.

  13. Do you need spending goals to save? « Grumpy rumblings of the untenured Says:

    […] goal-setting can help you be more disciplined in your saving/spending… but to what purpose?  If you have […]


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