Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Self-concordance theory and motivation
What is self-concordance, how does it influence motivation,
and how can self-concordant goals be fostered?
When was the last time you read an eloquently stated quote about "being yourself" or a book passage that espoused the benefits of "listening to your heart"? Western society is saturated with these types of sentiments, but it's not always clear what we're meant to change in order to achieve this vague state of "being oneself." On some level, this likely refers to the psychological construct of self-concordance, the state of having one's goals be congruent with their internal interests, motivations, and core values (Sheldon & Elliot, 1999).
Individuals who possess goals and plans that are self-concordant achieve higher levels of goal progress and attainment than those with discordant goals (Sheldon, 2014; Vasalampi, Salmela-Aro, & Nurmi, 2009). But the underlying mechanisms and motives behind this phenomenon are widely debated within the research. The purpose of this chapter is to summarise the theoretical components of self-concordance and examine how developing self-concordance can assist people to achieve their goals and consequently improve their well-being.
What is self-concordance?
"Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony." - Mahatma Gandhi
People often generate goals that they fail to bring to fruition and achieving a specific goal does not always provide an individual with the fulfilment they had anticipated or desired. Sheldon and Elliot (1999) suggest that these problems stem from a failure of the conative process, which refers to the proactive motivational process by which individuals commit to and pursue their goals. The self-concordance model (SCM) attempts to account for both halves of this process: goal adoption and goal achievement, as well as the effects of goal achievement on well-being.
The SCM developed from self-determination theory (SDT), based on the concept that intrinsically motivated goals (i.e., those pursued for the inherent satisfaction they provide) are more effective at guiding and sustaining effort than extrinsically motivated goals (i.e., those pursued for external reasons such as incentives or punishments; Ryan & Deci, 2000). Because people are subjected to a barrage of external influences, social pressures, and expectations of what one "should" do, the SCM assumes that people may not always select goals that fully reflect their own core values, personal interests, and internal desires (Sheldon & Elliot, 1999).
Additionally, SDT proposes that people have an innate psychological need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness; and that satisfaction of these needs forms the basis of intrinsic motivation and goal-striving behaviour (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Importantly, goal attainment alone does not always result in need satisfaction or a subjective sense of fulfilment. As illustrated in Figure 2, goals are mainly satisfying and produce long-term changes in well-being when they are self-concordant (i.e., reflect one's interests and values). These goals have an internal locus of causality, meaning the individual feels a strong sense of ownership and control over their goals (Sheldon, Prentice, Halusic, & Schüler, 2015). The perceived locus of causality for discordant goals, on the other hand, is external, indicating that the goal striver does not feel a sense of ownership or control.
Still, Sheldon and Elliot (1999) note that self-concordant goals are not always self-gratifying or enjoyable for the goal striver. For example, the goal "change my car's oil every 10,000 kilometres" is not necessarily enjoyable for most people, however an individual may engage in this behaviour voluntarily because they identify with the value of "being a good car owner." In this way, we can see that self-concordant goals are either intrinsically motivated (through innate enjoyment and interest) or identified (through self-reflective evaluations), but they are always integrated with the self in some fundamental way. Hence, self-concordance is conceptualised as an optimal mode of goal-striving, wherein goals are consistent with the "self" and facilitate satisfaction of psychological needs, producing intrinsic or identified motivation (Kelly, Mansell, & Wood, 2015).
Effects of self-concordance
Well-being is negatively affected when people routinely experience goal-related conflict, uncertainty, and disparity (Kelly et al., 2015). Conversely, those who engage in self-concordant pursuits enjoy a greater sense of well-being, alongside increased openness to experience, positive affect, empathy, vitality, and self-actualisation (Sheldon & Kasser, 1995). These effects have been observed in domains ranging from academic achievement to occupational effectiveness and self-reported well-being across culturally distinct populations. Vasalampi et al. (2009) followed the educational trajectories of 763 Finnish students over a two year period and found that students pursuing achievement-centred goals for identified reasons devoted more effort to their goals, which translated into better academic outcomes as time progressed. But it's not only students who can benefit from self-concordance, as illustrated by Tadić, Bakker, and Oerlemans (2013), who found that teachers experienced better work-related outcomes and reported greater subjective well-being when they felt ownership over their role as a teacher and viewed work-related tasks as valuable and interesting (hallmarks of self-concordance).
These studies illustrate the significance of self-concordance as a valuable personal resource when pursuing one's goals. However, much of this research has been conducted in North American and European countries, which begs the question: "Is self-concordance universal or does it have a cultural origin?" This was the question asked by Sheldon and seven of his colleagues when they investigated the self-concordance construct in four culturally distinct samples (from the U.S., China, Taiwan, and South Korea; Sheldon et al., 2004). Prior to this, self-concordance had only been validated in Western, individualistic populations where an emphasis is placed on independence and personalised goal-striving, whereas collectivist societies (e.g., China, Taiwan, and South Korea) place more emphasis on conformity and community-oriented goals. Despite this, the researchers observed self-concordance at levels comparable to the U.S. in all but Taiwan, where the construct was notably less ubiquitous but still present. Most importantly, self-concordance was a predictor of subjective well-being in each of the four cultures studied.
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How does self-concordance relate to motivation?
Greater and more sustained goal effort
Sheldon and Elliot (1999) point to increased effort as the mechanism by which self-concordant goals are more readily achieved. This finding has been supported by multiple studies since where self-concordance predicted more persistent goal effort (e.g., Vasalampi et al., 2009). Interestingly, both concordant and discordant goal strivers report a similar degree of intention to work toward their goal initially, but one study found that six weeks later concordant goal strivers were considerably more likely to have followed through with their intention (Sheldon & Elliot, 1998). Sheldon (2014) highlighted this "high-intention, low-effort" combination as a contributing factor to the low success rate for New Year's resolutions. But how does self-concordance increase effort? Well, Sheldon and Elliot (1999) argue that concordant goals are expressions of relatively permanent and stable dispositional characteristics and are thus inextricably linked to an individual's everyday strivings and pursuits.
Consider Sam, a year eight student who loves his art class but strongly dislikes maths class. Sam enjoys painting and garners a sense of purpose from it, whereas he only studies algebra because his parents have stressed its importance and he feels obligated to do well in the class. Sheldon and Elliot (1999) would suggest that Sam will invest more effort into art class than maths because it is more closely linked with his personal interests and values.
Perceived goal difficulty
More recently, research has turned to the subjective experience of goal striving to explain self-concordance. For example, Werner, Milyavskaya, Foxen-Craft, and Koestner (2016) followed university students over the course of a semester and assessed their goal concordance, allocation of effort, perceived goal difficulty, and goal attainment. Consistent with the SCM, goal attainment was higher for students with concordant goals. However, students allocated the same amount of effort to concordant and discordant goals, the principal difference was that concordant goals felt more effortless. So it's possible that Sam allocates equal amounts of time to studying his algebra textbook as he does to studying the canvas, but his time spent painting is likely characterised by a sense of ease, which results in greater efficiency and productivity (Werner et al., 2016). This experience may be qualitatively similar to Csikszentmihalyi's (1990) flow state, which is characterised by intrinsic enjoyment, effortlessness, and a feeling of immersion in the task.
Use of implementation intentions
An implementation intention is essentially a well-defined, specific plan for achieving a goal (Gollwitzer & Oettingen, 2011). This often takes the form of an "if-then" situational contingency. For example, Sam may set aside a one-hour period after school to finish his art project. However, Sam has a reasonable expectation that he may encounter obstacles such as running out of paint or being invited to an unplanned social event, so he develops strategies to overcome these possible obstacles (e.g., making a trip to the store to resupply or scheduling an extra session to finish his project later). Implementation intentions are an effective strategy for focusing attention on task-relevant issues in such a way that tasks can be performed on "auto-pilot" because the individual is prepared to address potential distractors and task-irrelevant stimuli. Self-concordance has been shown to increase spontaneous creation of implementation intentions, subsequently decreasing the need for conscious decision-making and mitigating distractions (Koestner, Otis, Powers, Pelletier, & Gagnon, 2008). Furthermore, the combination of self-concordance and implementation intentions has been shown to facilitate goal progress and attainment above and beyond either concordance or implementation intentions alone (Koestner, Lekes, Powers, & Chicoine, 2002).
Buffer between obstacles and goal
Regardless of how much we enjoy pursuing a particular goal, there are often tasks associated with our goals that require attention yet are not appealing because they are tedious, not engaging, or otherwise difficult. For example, consider a teacher who may derive immense enjoyment and personal meaning from their job, but still finds certain tasks unpleasant (e.g., dealing with difficult parents and filling out paperwork). This was precisely the population Tadić et al. (2013) were studying when they found that unpleasant (but necessary) tasks were more effectively handled by teachers whose work-related goals were self-concordant. Put another way, self-concordance appears to counteract, or buffer against, goal-related demands when these demands exist within the context of an intrinsic or identified goal pursuit. Sam always makes sure to clean his brushes and put away his easel after finishing a session in front of the canvas. He performs these tasks, even though he does not find them enjoyable, because he knows they are necessary to achieve his ultimate goal of improving as a painter.
Impaired affective forecasting
People tend to assume that any goal they are currently pursuing will result in personal fulfilment and psychological need satisfaction once achieved, however only those goals which are self-concordant tend to do so (Werner & Milyavskaya, 2017). This disparity between expectation and outcome can be explained by cognitive dissonance theory and the deliberative-implemental model of goal pursuit. The deliberative mindset occurs during goal-setting and is characterised by an open-minded consideration of possible goals, while the implemental mindset occurs during goal-striving and is characterised by a close-minded concentration on task-relevant information and goal achievement (Fujita, Gollwitzer, & Oettingen, 2007). And cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable psychological tension that occurs when someone performs a behaviour that is inconsistent with their self-view or beliefs (Festinger, 1962). Werner and Milyavskaya's (2017) participants were forecasting already established goals and likely possessed a close-minded, implemental mindset making goal change or abandonment unlikely. Without the possibility of changing their goals to correspond with their thoughts, participants would likely avoid admitting that some of their goals are not worth pursuing (i.e., won't lead to need satisfaction) in order to avoid cognitive dissonance (e.g., "Why am I pursuing this futile goal?"). Both of these factors contribute to our understanding of why affective forecasting is impaired in the goal-striving stage.
Judith Rodin and Ellen Langer (1977) developed a study to assess the effects of control and choice on elderly nursing home residents. They wanted to know whether the diminished levels of alertness, activity, and general health often associated with ageing were, in part, due to the environment of nursing homes. Specifically, the forced dependence on nursing staff and pre-determined schedules which undermine self-determined action . Rodin and Langer aimed to reduce, reverse, and even prevent the deleterious effects attributed to ageing by encouraging a sense of choice and control within participants.
The experimental group attended a talk which emphasised their personal responsibility and freedom to act with volition by spending their time how they pleased, rearranging their own furniture, and so on. The control group, on the other hand, were exposed to a talk which stressed the staff's obligation to care for and assist them. To reinforce this message, each participant was given a potted plant. The experimental group were encouraged to tend to and water their plants as they saw fit, while control group residents had staff members perform this task for them. Neither group was obstructed from (nor forced into) performing these activities, but only the experimental group was presented with the autonomy-inducing suggestions.
The researchers found that participants who were encouraged to exercise their autonomy were significantly more likely to report feelings of increased happiness and alertness. They were also more likely to participate in contests, activities, and generally socialised more than the non autonomy-encouraged group. Additionally, at an 18-month follow-up, participants not prompted to practise autonomy were almost twice as likely to have died during this period.
Rodin and Langer's study was conducted more than two decades before the SCM was developed, but it's worth considering how their autonomy intervention might have mitigated external and introjected demands (e.g., strict rules and schedules implicit in the institution), thus paving the way for more intrinsic and identified goals to emerge. Viewed in this retrospective manner, and considering the chapter thus far, how might self-concordance have resulted from providing nursing home residents with a neutral task (i.e., watering a plant) and a greater sense of control over their daily activities?
How can self-concordant goals be encouraged?
Develop self-insight and trust intuitions
Because the SCM places such an emphasis on dispositional values and interests, it goes to reason that people who have cultivated an awareness of these internal qualities will be better positioned to select the "right" goals. Indeed, Sheldon et al. (2015) established a link between self-concordant goals and traits associated with self-insight (i.e., mindfulness, self-actualisation, and private self-consciousness). Another study conducted by Burton (cited in Sheldon, 2014) compared participants engaged in a rational goal-setting task (i.e., asked to apply logical reasoning to their decision) with another group engaged in an intuitive goal-setting task (i.e., asked to follow their instincts or "gut feeling"). The resulting goals were far more self-concordant for the latter group making intuition-based decisions. These studies emphasise the importance of introspection and attending to one's thoughts and feelings, factors which appear to be essential to self-concordant goal setting.
Develop and maintain positive self-regard
Self-concordance is not only impacted by what we know about ourselves but also how we feel about ourselves. This was brilliantly illustrated in a study conducted by Judge, Bono, Erez, and Locke (2005), who found that positive self-regard (i.e., a self-image characterised by competence, self-efficacy, and self-worth) was highly correlated with the selection of self-concordant goals. Participants holding negative self-evaluations were more prone to feelings of guilt and anxiety which lead them to choose introjected, controlled, or obligation-based goals that were ultimately unsatisfying. Conversely, those with positive self-regard were better at assessing their needs, personal prospects, and skills when selecting a goal to pursue. They were more often guided by their own intrinsic and identified motivations. This suggests that people can obtain greater benefits from their goal pursuits after cultivating positivity, especially as it relates to their self-image, perhaps through a CBT intervention or mindfulness practice.
Become more proactive
So far we've dealt with the development of mental resources, but how might someone increase self-concordance through their behaviour and actions? Well, Greguras and Diefendorff (2010) found that employees who were proactive more often pursued self-concordant goals, subsequently achieved said goals, and experienced the resulting benefits of life and job satisfaction (mediated by psychological need satisfaction). The proactive personality is exemplified by someone who is prone to initiating change and influencing their environment across a wide range of situations. Being proactive likely influences motivation by providing the individual with a sense of autonomy ("I have control over my environment") and competence ("I am capable of anticipating my needs and changing my environment to suit them"). Hence, becoming more proactive can help us to select appropriate goals and increase our likelihood of achieving them.
Identify need-satisfying domains
Those wishing to benefit from self-concordance must first identify the activities that most effectively satisfy their psychological needs (Milyavskaya, Nadolny, & Koestner, 2014). This is especially important when considering Werner and Milyavksaya's (2017) finding that affective forecasting is unreliable. Further, it suggests that the search for self-concordance necessitates a deeper examination of one's needs in relation to their environment. As discussed, Werner and Milyavskaya (2017) examined affective forecasting for already established goals, but how accurate might affective forecasting be in the open-minded, deliberative stage of goal-setting? Layous, Sheldon, and Lyubomirsky (2014) suggest that people are better able to identify need-satisfying domains prior to goal selection. Based on the work of Kennon Sheldon, Sonja Lyubomirsky developed the Person-Activity Fit Diagnostic, a brief, self-administered survey to assess the personal suitability of activities in various domains (e.g., engaging in physical activity, practicing religion and spirituality, etc.) based on the level of enjoyment, ease, value, guilt, and situational necessity associated with each. If you'd like to discover which domains best support your own need satisfaction click here and follow the instructions to take the Person-Activity Fit Diagnostic.
The "upward spiral"
Having made active efforts toward self-concordance, you should experience an "upward spiral" effect, wherein achieving self-concordant goals results in increased motivation for, progress toward, and attainment of future concordant goals (Sheldon & Houser-Marko, 2001). For example, Sam, our burgeoning artist from earlier, may finish his first painting and experience a sense of fulfilment and related well-being which acts as a springboard launching him into his next masterpiece, and so on as the process repeats and Sam increases in confidence and understanding about his relation to the activity. In summation, it appears that self-concordance acts as a sort of motivational catalyst that simultaneously facilitates goal attainment and need satisfaction, leading to long-term gains in well-being and ultimately an "upward spiral" of additional self-concordance. Perhaps then, our conceptual model of self-concordance should take on a more circular form, as illustrated below.
Self-concordance refers to an optimal mode of goal-striving in which an individual has an innate interest or value-based identification with their goal. Self-concordance enables a person not only to achieve their goals, but also to satisfy their need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness and ultimately obtain a lasting sense of well-being and fulfilment. These benefits have been observed in academic, occupational, and cross-cultural settings. The motivational effects of self-concordance have been variously attributed to increased effort, subjective experience of ease, spontaneous creation of implementation intentions, and increased capacity to handle goal-related demands.
Research has also identified multiple strategies to increase self-concordance, including the development of self-insight and positive self-regard, proactive behaviour, reliance on intuitive decision-making, and identification of need-satisfying domains. People are better at assessing goal pursuits in a pre-decisional, deliberative mindset compared to a post-decisional, implemental mindset. Lastly, we saw that self-concordance has a cumulative quality that promotes further goal concordance as goals are pursued and accomplished. Overall, self-concordance stands out as a fundamental aspect of goal pursuit and motivational psychology more broadly. Furthermore, self-concordance presents itself as a promising avenue for anyone who wishes to see their innermost self reflected in their everyday (and lifelong) pursuits.
- Cognitive dissonance and emotion (Book chapter, 2018)
- Extrinsic motivation (Book chapter, 2013)
- Flow (Book chapter, 2011)
- Intrinsic motivation (Book chapter, 2013)
- Self-determination theory (Book chapter, 2011)
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