Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Aspirational goals

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Aspirational goals:
Are aspirational goals an effective tool in promoting motivation?
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Overview[edit | edit source]

Throughout life, individuals are destined to have certain goals in order to help them achieve their aspirations and dreams. When considering these goals and how best to set one, it is important to have a foundational knowledge of the basic concepts, uses and best implementations. It is through this knowledge that individuals will have the greatest success in reaching even their wildest aspirations.

Focus questions:

  • What are the ABC's of goals?
  • What are Aspirational Goals?
  • What theories substantiate the use of Aspirational Goals?

Goals, as defined by Latham & Locke (2002), are: “the object or aim of an action, for example, to attain a specific standard of proficiency, usually within a specified time limit”. They are essentially a level of expertise that we wish to attain, using goals to mobilise to make them a reality. Typically, goals affect performance by directing attention, mobilising effort, increasing persistence, and motivating strategy development (Locke et al., 1981). It is through this that we are able to achieve our goals, as long as they are specific and challenging enough. These qualities in goals are essential, as we cannot simply say that we want something and expect it to happen.

Additionally, to have an effective goal, they must be A – Achievable, B – Believable and C -  Committed. This foundational requirement is known as the ABCs of Goals, and was coined by Frank Smoll (2013), who stated that these 3 principles are what transform a goal into an effective motivational force. Furthermore, other factors may contribute to the effectiveness and efficiency of said goals. Several strategies have been imposed by various researchers, as to suggest the best means to reinforce the ABC’s, as well as incorporate several other important variables. One such strategy, the SMART Goal, was an acronym developed by George T. Doran (1981) to be used as an aid when developing goals whilst still adhering to the basic concepts and rules of goal setting. This is depicted in Figure 1. SMART is comprised of:

  • Specific – Goals that are clear, well defined and unambiguous have a greater chance of being accomplished. This is due to the focus of direct attention on certain tasks that will allow an individual to achieve.
  • Measurable – Goals must be made with specific criteria as to allow for you to measure your progress towards the accomplishment of the set goal. Without this, you will be unable to determine whether you are on track to completing the goal.
  • Achievable – Must always be attainable and not impossible to achieve. This will allow for you to constantly strive towards completing it, and inventing new strategies to work towards it. An unachievable goal would not be facilitative of motivation, and most likely have an inverse effect.
  • Realistic – Similar to achievable, a realistic goal must be achieved within a certain amount of time with a realistic amount of resources available to the individual. It must also be relevant for full committal.
  • Timely – The goal must have a clearly defined timeline, including a start and finish date. This creates a sense of urgency, which in turn increases motivation.

(Doran, 1981 as cited in Bjerke & Renger, 2017).

Figure 1. George T. Doran's (1981) SMART acronym details the basic concepts of goal-setting.

Each of these key points and aforementioned strategies are essential in developing various kinds of goals, and in turn achieving all kinds of aspirations.

What are aspirational goals?[edit | edit source]

Aspirational Goals are a type of goal characterised by a strong desire or aspiration for something, usually towards a higher standard of living hoped for the far future (10 to 20 years). Typically, aspirational goals aren’t defined by logic, and cannot be necessarily be explained as to how you will achieve it. This may include remarks such as: ‘I want a successful career!’, ‘I want to be rich!’ or ‘I want to live overseas!’. In each of these statements, it is evident that the individual has no process as to achieve these goals. Therefore, aspirational goals are usually considered as the thoughts and desire, with no current actioning towards making this a reality (Hart, 2016). Aspirational goals share similar features to other kinds of goals, but they are more cemented in the future, rather than the here and now.

Literature review in subfield of aspirational goals[edit | edit source]

Aspirational Goals are ingrained in several prominent literatures pertaining to the theories of motivation. With varying implications for aspirational goals, the; Goal-setting, Human Motivation and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theories suggest differently as to how effective aspirational goals would be towards motivation, and whether it would be an effective facilitator. Through a review of literature in each of these theories, the effectiveness and legitimacy of aspirational goals will be assessed.

Goal-setting theory[edit | edit source]

Considered to be the underlying explanation for all major theories of work motivation, Goal-Setting theory described the phenomenon in which the individuals who are provided with specific and difficult tasks to perform superiorly to those with nonspecific and easy tasks (Lunenburg, 2011). Furthermore, individual capacity must also be considered, as sufficient ability to complete tasks, acceptance of goals and openness to feedback also influences task performance (Latham, 2003, as cited in Lunenburg, 2011). Centred around the five aforementioned principles, clarity, challenge, capacity, commitment and feedback combine to provide a holistic explanation as to how to best implement goals. This is due to:

  • Clarity: a clear goal without any risk of misunderstanding leads to explicit behaviours that act only towards completing the task. Without this motivation would be indirect, and wasted on actions that may not help progress an individual to their goal.
  • Challenge: as previously mentioned, there are positive liner relationships with task challenge and performance. The more arduous the task, the greater the performance and motivating factors reinforcing it. If a challenge is too much or not enough, it can lead to either not meeting expectations and suffering levels of frustrations, or having an inverse reaction on motivation.
  • Capacity: the individual must have the capacity (or ability) to achieve the designated task. In a way, the challenge must be realistic and attainable within a limited about of resources and time.
  • Commitment: an essential component of any goal, a commitment (or acceptance) must be made as to begin the process of directing motivation. Generally, a strong interest or desire precedes strong commitment. Without this, individuals will not attempt to achieve this to the best of their ability.
  • Feedback: essential for correction or clarification, or to determine whether an individual is on the correct path for optimal progression. Without this an individual may not reach goal realisation.

With careful consideration of each of these principles, an individual may effectively implement goal setting skills to help motivate them towards achieving desires. Other factors of lesser importance, include deadlines and learning over performance orientation.

In respect to aspirational goals, goal setting suggests two contradicting factors. Firstly, goal-setting suggests that the more difficult the task, as long as it’s still attainable, the greater the task performance will be. Aspirations are closely tied to desires and wants, which are fundamental to any kind of motivation. It can increase commitment and acceptance, as well as dedication in working towards this luxurious, higher lifestyle (Miller & Sendrowitz, 2011). Furthermore, prior research has established a positive linear relationship between goal difficulty and task performance, suggesting that the more ambitious the goal, the better the task performance (Locke & Latham, 2006). The second, and more controversial, is that aspirational goals would be an ineffective form of motivation, as they provide no clarity, measurability, structure/plan or feedback. By design these goals are meant to be ludicrous and far-fetched, as they are almost a long-term investment-type goal. As long as these aspirations are made intentionally and with purpose, sufficient determination and motivation will be facilitated. Therefore, in accordance with the literature relevant to goal-setting theory, aspirational goals would be considered sufficient motivators.

Human motivation theory[edit | edit source]

Human Motivation theory, otherwise known as the Three Needs Theory, was created by David McClelland (1961) and states that every person has one of three driving motivators; needs for achievement, affiliation or power. It suggests that people all have a need to fulfil one or more of these motivators, and they will often lead to a higher quality of life. Additionally, Human Motivation suggests that whilst individuals may have a unique combination of all three, one is usually dominant to the others (McClelland, 1961). Therefore, people are often able to be characterised depending on their dominant motivator. These motivators are thought not be inherent, but learnt and developed throughout our various cultural, societal and life experiences (Sparks & Repede, 2016; Hart, 2016). These motivators are characterised by:

  • Achievement:
    • A strong need to set and accomplish challenging goals
    • Likes to take calculated risks to accomplish goals
    • Prefers regular feedback to monitor progress and achievements, making sure they’re on track to accomplishing goals
    • Lone wolf, prefers to take on the workload as to reserve the praise for themselves
  • Affiliation
    • Needs to belong in social circles
    • Value relationships
    • Wants to be liked, often will agree with group as to adhere with the social norm
    • Prefers collaboration over competition
  • Power
    • Wants to control or influence
    • Wants status and recognition
    • Enjoys competition and winning

Each of the three driving motivators can be considered as similar to aspirational goals as they have various features that coincide with the requirements of intentional aspirations. Each of these motivators are focused on strong desire or aspiration for something, usually towards a higher standard of living, i.e. career power/success, wealth, recognition. This is evident particularly in ‘power’, where individuals may have a strong need for status and recognition, as well as to control or influence, usually from a position of significance. This is furthermore reinforced by ‘achievement’, where there is a strong need for setting and accomplishing challenging goals. These are the foundational requirements of aspirational goals, and can therefore be considered as an effective motivator due to the similarities with the Human Motivation theory.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. This image illustrates Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (1943) as a pyramid, with the essential components closer towards the base, and more idealistic traits towards the top.

In 1943, Abraham Maslow create the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory, which is a theory based around the concept of human potential. The theory states that humans are motivated by five basic types of needs; being: physiological, safety, love, esteem and self-actualisation (Maslow, 1943). At the core of this theory there are two important ideas, firstly that each level has its own motivator, and secondly that the motives form a hierarchy, in which some take priority (or precedent) over others. This is often depicted as a five-tier pyramid model present - see Figure 2 -, in which basic human needs are towards the base, physiological needs are in the middle, and self-fulfilment is at the pinnacle. They are divided into the following:

  • Physiological: refers to the basic human needs for survival, such as satisfying hunger or thirst. They are our most primal instincts and needs, and are mostly needed for homeostasis and regularly bodily health. Some examples may include food, water and sleep.
  • Safety: refers to the needs for a safe environment and shelter. This is prevalent in childhood, in which safe and predictable environments are needed for learning to be effectively facilitated. In adulthood, it may present as preferring the familiar, lack of risk taking, etc.
  • Love/Belonging: refers to the needs to feel loved, accepted and belonging. This includes social relationships as well as more intimate, romantic relations. Multitudes of research has established social connections as highly important for wellbeing, as they are better for physical needs, and preventative of mental issues such as isolation.
  • Esteem: refers to the desire to feel happy and content with ourselves. This is closely linked with the previous level, and is separated into two components. The first component includes self-confidence and valuing yourself, the second focused on feeling valued and recognised by others. These needs being met can result in feelings of increased self-esteem.
  • Self-actualisation: the final stage, refers to feeling fulfilled and the sense that we are living to our potential. It can also refer to seeking further personal growth, accomplishment of goals, etc. This is usually what people aim towards, and can be considered as desires or aspirations.

Through the use of this pyramid, Maslow suggests that motivation increases as an individual fulfils these primal needs, and rises towards self-actualisation. When comparing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs with aspirational goals, multiple similarities are present. These are evident towards the pinnacle of the pyramid, particularly with Esteem and Self-Actualisation. Each of these levels motivate an individual with personal growth, something that aspirations is closely tied with (Stoyanvov, 2017). Aspirational goals may include things such as career progression, recognition, status and financial freedom all of which are conducive with the top two levels of Maslow’s pyramid.  Therefore, as aspirations are closely linked with personal growth and self-actualisation, it can be argued that aspirational goals are effective motivators, as they align with the requirements found within Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory.

Types of aspirational goals[edit | edit source]

When considering types of aspirational goals and the benefits and limitations, there are two main kinds. These are intentional aspirational goals and non-intentional aspirational goals. Due to this, correct development and implementation is a necessity, as incorrect usage can lead to frustration and lack of accomplishments. This is due to the grandiose nature of aspirational goals, which are usually lacking in logic or solid ideas of how to implement strategies to achieve these goals.

This important distinction when discussing aspirational goals is that they are made intentionally. This means to consciously aspire to better yourself or your situation, whether it be socially, physically, your lifestyle or through work. Intentional aspirational goals implement the use of self-determination, where the individual is essentially responsible for their own success, particularly when goals are involved (Deci & Ryan, 2020). If implemented correctly, intentional aspirational goals can assist with human motivation through inspiring the individual to achieve a higher quality of life. With this intent, an individual can set into motion several strategies to help them achieve their dreams 5, 10 or 20 years in the future.

This distinction is important, as without the element of intentional and conscious aspirational goal making, the aspirations can often be ludicrous, demotivating and frustrating when the individual has minimal intention to follow through with the goal. This relates to Aspirational (level) theory, which focuses on the consequences of a failure to meet these established aspirations or wants in terms of the individual well-being. Furthermore, this theory suggests that humans are unable to make absolute judgements, instead having to rely on comparisons with their environment to help them develop expectations and aspirations (Stutzer & Henne, 2020).

The development and implementation of aspirational goals[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. This image illustrates the necessity of optimal planning when developing and implementing goals.

When attempting to effectively develop and implement aspirational goals it is important to adhere to the strict guidelines that have been previously mentioned throughout this chapter. Using the aforementioned strategies of Locke’s Goal-Setting theory (1968), Doran’s SMART acronym (1981) and Smoll’s ABC’s of Goals (2013), we are able to identify the necessary step required to achieve aspirations, being:

  1. Figure out what you want to achieve and be specific
    • This is necessary, as if it is too vague you will be unable to set into motion various steps needed to make progress towards this goal. It must also be achievable within the persons own abilities, here and now or in the future. This lays the foundation for motivation and provide direction for actions.
  2. Break it down and make it measurable
    • Essential for feedback and evaluation, which can be useful for correcting or clarification to facilitate progress towards achieving the goal. Adhering to goal-setting theory through openness to feedback is a necessity, as it allows for optimal progression towards realisation.
  3. Challenge yourself to the best of your ability
    • As we know, challenging yet achievable tasks increase task performance, as evident in Figure 3. Furthermore, time restrictions or deadlines can create a sense of urgency, furthering motivation.
  4. Commitment to achieving your aspirations
    • You might be extremely motivated when you create the goal, but if you do not follow up with the plan, you will not achieve it. Acceptance and commitment is needed.

Furthermore, individual’s traits come into play when considering the effectiveness of various goals. Aspirational goals are best implemented in scenarios where an individual is ambitious, and internally driven and motivated to achieve goals. These are most prevalent in self-efficacy personality types. These traits are most important to the follow through with any goals or dreams, and make the candidate more likely to commit (Prabhu et al., 2008).

Using this knowledge, read the following case studies and decide whether the participants effectively developed and implemented their aspirational goals. Lastly, determine whether you think they will achieve their aspirational goal, based on the details below.

Case study 1 - Erin

Erin from a young age aspired to become a policewoman. Even as a child Erin always was determined and strong willed, often not giving up until she had what she wanted. When she was older, she decided that the best way to be seriously considered as a candidate to join the AFP was to have a clean record and study something relevant to the field. Later that year she received an offer to study a Bachelor of Law, and gleefully accepted the offer, recognising this is her next step towards achieving her dreams.

Erin achieving her goal of becoming a policewoman is:


Case study 2 - Dean

Dean always wanted to be a famous rugby player, and was very good at lunch time when playing with all his friends. Unfortunately, Dean had a poor work ethic and didn’t train seriously, if at all. When it came time for try outs the coach told Dean that he wasn’t selected and that he needed to work on his fitness and skills if he wanted to get to the next level. Frustrated, Dean ignored the coach and blamed him for having favouritism towards the other players who he thought were not as good. He continued his same training regime for the rest of the season and his attitudes were unchanged.

Dean achieving his goal of becoming a famous rugby player is:


Potential influences of Aspirational Goals[edit | edit source]

How can aspirational goals influence motivation? Do the potential benefits outweigh the negatives? When considering the use of these goals, it is important to recognise the benefits and limitations in comparison with various other goals.

Benefits[edit | edit source]

  • Aspirational goals are intrinsically motivating, and lead to working towards a sense of success or purpose. This is particularly relevant for aspirational goals are aspirations are sensation, rather than a concrete plan.
  • Dreams and aspirations are powerful tools for commitment, as interest and desire is one of the strongest motivators. It also provides a sense of purpose, which can direct you towards achieving your goal.
  • Aspirations are challenging goals, as they are generally of a luxurious or higher lifestyle. This may lead to increases in task performance, which tends to be greater than performance levels on easier tasks.
  • When used correctly, they can affect performance by directing attention, mobilising effort, increasing persistence, and motivate strategy development.

Limitations[edit | edit source]

  • May not considered specific enough, as they usually pertain to a higher quality of life or status, such as ‘I want to be rich!’.
  • Since they have no sense of direction or defy logic, they may not be achievable or believable, which is against the fundamentals of ABC goal setting.
  • May not reach your goal in allocated timeframe, if you even have one. This is often the case due to the fact that they are essentially dreams and hopes for the future, meaning there is no timeline.
  • Can be unrealistic, which can be disastrous for motivation and lead to immense frustration. This may even promote a sense of failure and self-doubt, which can impact motivation in the future.

Directions for future research[edit | edit source]

The field of Aspirational Goal research may benefit from further investigation into how and in what environments are conducive of making aspirational goals. This may allow for a greater understanding in the development of aspirations, as only a miniscule of knowledge is known and it predominantly revolves around the effect of society and the environment on the development of aspirations. Additionally, it may be worth researching further into the links between various personality types and traits in the likelihood of goal attainment, through the investigation of likelihood of commitment, determination and purpose. The role that personality plays in motivation and determination received from goals is extremely essential, and a further understanding may shed light on how we can individualise goals to better suit each personality type. Furthermore, research into the threshold potential for task difficulty and performance would be interesting, as to know the limit in difficulty you can use to bolster performance, and how far you can compensate for difficulty through correct planning and determination.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

In conclusion, aspirational goals should be considered an effective tool for increasing motivation in an individual. This is due to the majority adherence with the fundamentals of goal setting, being Smoll’s ABCs of goals and Doran’s SMART acronym. These guidelines state the necessity for goals to be specific, achievable, measurable and challenging, whilst keeping the goal timely and realistic with available resources. Further substantiating the use of aspirational goals are the three theories of; goal-setting, human motivation and the hierarchy of needs. Each of these pertain to different facets of aspirational goals, such as the individual’s capacity for completing goals, the human need for achievement, affiliation and power and finally the primal instinct of self-fulfilment. Each of these respective theories reinforce the use of aspirational goals, as they coincide with the findings prevalent within each of the literatures.

Quiz[edit | edit source]

1 Frank Smoll's ABCs of Goals is an acronym standing for:

Attainable, Behavioural and Commanding
Accepting, Believable and Challenging
Achievable, Believable and Committed

2 What is the important distinction to make when discussing aspirational goals in terms of effectiveness?

That they are unrealistic
That they are made intentionally, hence the term Intentional Aspirational Goals
That they are made as a New Years resolution

3 Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs reinforces the use Aspirational Goals as they both relate to:

Human necessity for fulfilment and attainment of goals
Filling basic primal needs, such as food and shelter
That everyone wants to feel desired

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Bjerke, M., & Renger, R. (2017). Being smart about writing SMART objectives. Evaluation And Program Planning, 61(1), 125-127.

Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (2020). Self-determination theory. In P. Van Lange & A. Kruglanski, Handbook of theories of social psychology (1st ed., pp. 416 - 436). Sage Publications Ltd. Retrieved 17 October 2020, from

Hart, C. (2016). How Do Aspirations Matter?. Journal Of Human Development And Capabilities, 17(3), 324-341.

Locke, E., & Latham, G. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American Psychologist, 57(9), 705-717.

Locke, E., & Latham, G. (2006). New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory. Current Directions In Psychological Science, 15(5), 265-268.

Lunenburg, F. (2011). Goal-Setting Theory of Motivation. INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT, BUSINESS, AND ADMINISTRATION, 15(1). Retrieved 29 August 2020, from

Locke, E., Shaw, K., Saari, L., & Latham, G. (1981). Goal setting and task performance: 1969-1980. Psychological Bulletin, 90(1), 125-152.

Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396.

McClelland, D. (1961). The achieving society. Princeton, N.J: Van Nostrand.

McClelland, D., & Burnham, D. (2008). Power is the great motivator (1st ed.). Harvard Business Press.

Miller, M., & Sendrowitz, K. (2011). Counseling psychology trainees' social justice interest and commitment. Journal Of Counseling Psychology, 58(2), 159-169.

Prabhu, V., Sutton, C., & Sauser, W. (2008). Creativity and Certain Personality Traits: Understanding the Mediating Effect of Intrinsic Motivation. Creativity Research Journal, 20(1), 53-66.

Small, F. (2013). Keys to Effective Goal Setting. Psychology Today. Retrieved 29 August 2020, from

Sparks, W., & Repede, J. (2016). Human Motivation and Leadership: Assessing the Validity and Reliability of the Actualized Leader Profile. The Academy Of Educational Leadership Journal, 20(23). Retrieved 29 August 2020, from

Stoyanov, S. (2017). An analysis of abraham h. maslow's a theory of human motivation. ProQuest Ebook Central

Stutzer, A., & Henne, T. (2020). Aspiration Theory. In A. Michalos, Encyclopedia of Quality of Life and Well-Being Research (1st ed.). Springer. Retrieved 17 October 2020.

External links[edit | edit source]