Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/Giving up goals

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Giving up goals:
When should we give up goals and when should we persist?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Have you ever had a goal that you gave up pursuing? Or you just couldn't achieve, regardless of how hard you tried? Like most individuals who have to stop putting effort into certain goals, you probably felt feelings of failure, sadness and even despair. Traditionally, giving up on a goal has been seen as a failure but recently there has been more research into the importance of failing on emotional development and also how giving up isn't always a bad thing.

This chapter outlines the importance of goals within the human psyche and how "giving up" on goals is not an entirely negative construct. The social, biological and psychological implications of giving up are explored in relation to goal setting and failure. Goal setting is highly individual and different for everyone, therefore the way that individuals complete or give up on their goals is entirely dependant on individual circumstances.

This chapter is not promoting giving up, but rather a better look into the term and how we can change preconceived notions that those who give up are failures.

Focus questions:

  • What is a goal and why are they important?
  • Why is giving up a negative act?
  • What happens when you fail at your goals?
  • When is it okay to give up on your goals?

What is a goal?[edit | edit source]

Goal setting involves the development of an action plan designed to motivate and guide a person or group towards a goal. Goals are highly individual and mean different things to different people (Wrosch et al., 2003). Goals also play a different role in different areas of life. For example, individuals can have different goals associated with different aspects of their life such as their relationship, career and personal life.

Figure 1. A team scoring a goal.

Goal setting in psychology refers to a successful plan of action used to guide us to choose the right path and the right time. The act of setting goals triggers new behaviours, which guides focus and sustains motivation and momentum through life (Locke & Latham, 2006 ). Locke and Latham (2006) also established a strong connection between goal setting and self success, which were also linked with higher levels of motivation, self esteem, self confidence and autonomy (Matthews, 2015).

Goals can act as a road map throughout an individual's lifespan (Jones et al., 2013). According to Edward Locke and Gary Latham (1990), goals help to mobilise energy which leads to higher immediate effort and in turn a higher level of persistent effort over time.

Goals can be long-term, intermediate, or short term. The main difference is in the time required for individuals to achieve them. Short-term goals are expected to be completed in a short period of time, whereas long-term goals are completed in a longer time frame and intermediate goals in a medium amount of time.

Mindset theory of action phases[edit | edit source]

Peter Gollwitzer's mindset theory of action phases proposes that there are two phases in which an individual must go through if they wish to achieve a goal:

  1. Selection of goal
  2. Planning how to achieve goal

The first phase involves mentally choosing a goal by identifying the criteria needed to complete it and deciding on which goal to achieve based on their overall commitment to seeing it through. The second phase is referred to the planning stage, in which an individual will decide what set of behaviours they can utilise and that will allow them to best reach their desired goal.

What is giving up?[edit | edit source]

Giving up, technically referred to as "goal disengagement", occurs when individuals no longer want to pursue their goals.

The concept of giving up has been shrouded in negativity and has long been known to be associated with failure or losing. Researchers Wrosch and Miller argue that the concept of persistence being vital for success is deeply embedded in western culture and also argues that the traditional advice of "never giving up" is in fact bad advice. The close connection that has been made between failure and giving up on goals has lead to the negative connotation associated with goal disengagement within current society (Locke & Latham, 2006).

It has also been argued that the negativity associated with goal disengagement is due to negativity bias (Cacio & Berntson, 1999; Vanish et al., 2008). Negative bias is the likelihood for individuals to focus on negative stimuli or events and the tendency to dwell on them (Vaish et al., 2008). Negativity bias allows individuals to more easily focus on the negatives rather than actively look for the positives in situations. For example many individuals would see the act of them disengaging or giving up on their goals as a negative act and dwell on their feelings of failure. It is unlikely that the same individual would focus on how disengaging from that particular goal may be relieving unnecessary stress or allowing them to excel further in another aspect of life. Negativity bias has also been linked to increased rates of goal failure, due to its ability to negatively impact individuals motivation to pursue a goal (Lüscher et al., 2017).

Giving up is closely linked to failure, [grammar?] making the act seem negative and harder to accept (Strauman et al., 2007, pp. 850–868). There are many reasons why individuals fear failure, however researchers believe that looking bad in front of people or people finding out you've failed is the most common cause of dread in people (Dwyer & Davidson, 2012). For example, this is why people fear public speaking. Dwyer and Davidson (2012) found that public speaking is college students[grammar?] most common fear, which helped the authors aptly quote the 1973 Burskins Associates findings, which were that most people fear public speaking even more than death. With giving up or ceasing a goal being so closely linked to failure it is easy to understand why individuals find it difficult to see goal disengagement as a good thing, particularly with all of the societal pressure which is heavily influenced by the role of social media (Charpentier et al., 2017).

What happens when you give up?[edit | edit source]

Have you ever not been able to achieve your goals? Failure to achieve or progress towards a personal goal can lead to various negative affective states. Failure or giving up affects everyone differently and can have varying effects[spelling?] on individuals physical, psychological and social state (Locke & Latham, 2006 ).

Biological effects[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Winner effect[edit | edit source]

Winner effect is a term used in biological science to describe how an animal that has won a number of fights against weak opponents is much more likely to win in later fights against strong contenders (Oyegbile & Marler, 2006). However, Oyegbile and Marler linked individuals experiencing winners effect to adverse responses to failure. It is argued that if an individual is adjusted to winning then the effects of losing will be greater than that of an individual who is used to losing.

Figure 2. Olanda Anderson attempts to land a punch against Rudolf Kraj. Anderson lost to Kraj by 1 point.

Atychiphobia[edit | edit source]

Atychiphobia or the fear of failure, refers to the irrational and persistent fear of failing (Rowa, 2015). Fear of failure is a common symptom that is consistent with other mood disorders, anxiety disorders or eating disorders. Individuals my also experience atychiphobia throughout their life if they are a perfectionist (Rowa, 2015).

Symptoms of atychiphobia include:

  • Intense feeling of panic or anxiety.
  • Overwhelming need to escape a situation that produces the fear.
  • Feeling like you have lost control.
  • Thinking you may die or pass out.
  • Feeling powerless over the fear.

There have been researchers who suggests that many individuals "self-handicap" with atychiphobia, which refers to the concept of self sabotaging your efforts in an attempt to avoid failure (Rowa, 2015).

You are more likely to develop atychiphobia if:

  • You have had previous experiences with failure, particularly if the experience was traumatic or had severe negative implications.
  • Learnt to fear failing through a parent who also fears failure. In some cases individuals develop the disorder through informational learning, where they develop the fear after learning about someone else's experience.
  • You are a perfectionist.

Neurological effects[edit | edit source]

When individuals fail it triggers a series of events and chemicals in the brain. These feelings and emotions include disappointment, anxiety, shame or depression. When individuals experience winning or success, the brain releases endorphins, dopamine and serotonin, which encourages us to engage in a task again (Robinson, 2008). When an individual fails or gives up the brain will release cortisol which can result in anxiety, feelings of rejection and being unsafe (Oyegbile & Marler, 2006). This in turn, discourages us from participating in tasks if a similar nature or in some cases, tasks all together (Charpentier et al., 2017). Cortisol is a primal hormone with its main function being used in an individual's fight or flight response, release of cortisol will enhance feelings of anxiety and stress (Oyegbile & Marler, 2006).

Psychological effects[edit | edit source]

Rumination, is often defined as a repetitive thought cycle which focuses on the causes, outcomes and symptoms an individual's negative state. Research suggests that deep self reflection (rumination) in response to goal failure can result in an intensified and severe emotional response (Jones et al., 2013). It is theorised that rumination is a form of maladaptive emotional regulation and an avoidant coping strategy (Smith & Alloy, 2009). Rumination is linked to the development of depression, anxiety and cognitive distortion.

Figure 3. Entombment of Christ, 1682

Failure has been directly linked to cases of depression and anxiety, when failure to achieve personal goals results in low self worth and self esteem (Strauman et al., 2007, pp. 850–868). Depression and or anxiety development is exacerbated by persistent failures, emotional instability and insufficient coping mechanisms in place (Robinson, 2008).

Persistent and negative experiences with failure can create traumatic responses to failure or giving up. Fear of failure can result in individuals not wanting to pursue their goals out of fear of failure and subsequent negative emotions (Shah, 2005).

Social effects[edit | edit source]

Many individuals struggle with social standards and cultural expectations towards goal promotion and achievement, which has been linked to adverse emotional responses when it comes to failing or going against the status quo (Elliot et al., 2011). With humans being renowned for seeking approval from group members or family, failure and the negative social impacts can cause individuals to fear failing or attempting similar tasks (Rosi et al., 2019).

Social Pressures and anxiety felt post failing has been linked to a greater chance of an individual avoiding similar goals (Rosi et al., 2019). A study conducted by Testa and Major (1990) showed that subjects who failed initial tests and were led to believe that it wasn't possible to improve their performance on a second test reported greater depressive and hostile responses and persisted less on their second tasks (Testa & Major, 1990).

With the increasing use of social media and online platforms as individuals main form of communication many individuals have a warped sense of success and failure. Social bias warping effects how individuals see failure and process it (Hamre & Pianta, 2005). With social media being haven for promoting success and advancement and rarely seeing individuals post about failure, many researchers have suggested that social media use results in individuals thinking failing or giving up is abnormal (Hamre & Pianta, 2005).

When is it okay to give up?[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Depicts the various pathways to finding higher-order values and goals after disengaging from a goal as devised by Worsch et al. (2003)

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When giving up is beneficial[edit | edit source]

Misguided persistence can have undesirable consequences for individuals who are attempting to achieve multiple goals (Brockner, 1992). Misguided persistence can impede individuals efforts to finding a better suited pathway (Wrosch et al., 2003). When a goal is unattainable or unrealistic giving it persistent attention can lead to goal burn out and negative emotional responses to lack of progress (Heckhausen et al., 2010). Attainability is essential for individuals to optimise their experience with goal setting, as the act of completing reasonable goals allows motivation to continue or start another goal. Unreasonable and unattainable goals are negatively geared towards failure and thus disengagement from such goals is essential for individuals to move forward in other goals nor aspirations.

Disengagement from certain goals or aspirations can allow for greater time and focus to be given to another goal which could be essential for its completion. Many researchers argue that individuals who have too many goals and distractions struggle to maintain and complete goals (Robinson, 2008). This is due to emotional resources being spread too thin and not allowing appropriate amounts of effort to be given to their goals. Disengaging from certain goals allows for the redirection of effort and in some cases the realisation of an individual's true goal or aspiration (Schulz & Heckhausen, 1996).

Goal disengagement forms an important part of effective self-regulation. Wrosch and his colleagues argue that this essential aspect of effective self-regulation derives from a consideration process inherent in the lifespan development of an individual (Wrosch et al., 2010). It has also been argued that disengagement requires an individual to withdraw effort and commitment from goals, but becomes adaptive if it leads to pursuing new meaningful goals.

Giving up vs redirection[edit | edit source]

Goals and aspirations play an important role in development, positive emotional responses to life events and mapping out an individual's life. This chapter is not promoting merely just giving up on goals, but rather giving up on goals that are unattainable, unsuitable, stressful, time wasting and redirect that time and motivation into realistic and appropriate goals.

Reducing a goal's importance can help re-define it as not necessary for satisfaction in life (Sprangers & Schwartz, 1999). Many individuals place unnecessary amount of stress on achieving goals just for the sake of success. Redirecting efforts on certain goals can help individuals realise that certain goals promoted by society are not necessarily going to bring them happiness, going to university for example. Redirection allows them to focus on goals that realistically fit in with their lifestyle and personality.

Life-span theory of development is based in the concept of primary and secondary control. Primary control refers to behaviours directed at the external environment and involves attempting to change the world to fit the needs and desires of the individual (Schulz & Heckhausen, 1996). Whereas, secondary control focuses on the internal processes that serve to minimise losses and expand existing levels of primary control (Heckhausen et al., 2010; Schulz & Heckhausen, 1996). Secondary control helps individuals cope with failure by channeling motivational resources towards selected goals throughout an individual's life.

When to struggle and when to give up?[edit | edit source]

Understanding when to stop struggling with a particular goal and redirect efforts elsewhere displays effective self regulation (Greenberg et al., 1992). Not only that, but it also displays an increased sense of self preservation which helps individuals avoid negative events and outcomes (Greenberg et al., 1992).

Disengagement does not refer to failure but rather the acceptance that time and effort is being wasted on one goal, which could be used to help completed another (Schulz & Heckhausen, 1996). There are no set criteria or check boxes that can assist individuals to understand when to persist and give up. Goals are highly individual and the decision of whether or not continue or give up is a decision that ultimately needs to be made by the individual (Schulz & Heckhausen, 1996).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Goals play an important role in an individual's journey through life and individuals should continue to set goals and aspirations throughout their life. When an individual disengages from their goal it is often seen as a failure and they have merely given up. Disengagement does not promote giving up but rather re-direction and self reflection into what is right for the individual. It's okay to decide that a previous goal no longer works for you, it's not giving up or failing, its redirecting your efforts to suit your own individual needs. Failing at a goal is not always a negative outcome, everyone in their life will fail at something, it's how you approach and redirect your energy, thats important.


Have you ever given up on a goal? If so what was the reason?

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Brockner, J. (1992). The Escalation of Commitment to a Failing Course of Action: Toward Theoretical Progress. The Academy of Management Review, 17(1), 39. https://doi.org/10.2307/258647

Charpentier, C. J., Aylward, J., Roiser, J. P., & Robinson, O. J. (2017). Enhanced Risk Aversion, But Not Loss Aversion, in Unmedicated Pathological Anxiety. Biological Psychiatry, 81(12), 1014–1022. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2016.12.010

Dwyer, K. K., & Davidson, M. M. (2012). Is Public Speaking Really More Feared Than Death? Communication Research Reports, 29(2), 99–107. https://doi.org/10.1080/08824096.2012.667772

Elliot, A. J., Thrash, T. M., & Murayama, K. (2011). A Longitudinal Analysis of Self-Regulation and Well-Being: Avoidance Personal Goals, Avoidance Coping, Stress Generation, and Subjective Well-Being. Journal of Personality, 79(3), 643–674. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.2011.00694.x

Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Pyszczynski, T., Rosenblatt, A., Burling, J., Lyon, D., Simon, L., & Pinel, E. (1992). Why do people need self-esteem? Converging evidence that self-esteem serves an anxiety-buffering function. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(6), 913–922. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.63.6.913

Hamre, B. K., & Pianta, R. C. (2005). Can Instructional and Emotional Support in the First-Grade Classroom Make a Difference for Children at Risk of School Failure? Child Development, 76(5), 949–967. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2005.00889.x

Heckhausen, J., Wrosch, C., & Schulz, R. (2010). A motivational theory of life-span development. Psychological Review, 117(1), 32–60. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0017668

Jones, N. P., Papadakis, A. A., Orr, C. A., & Strauman, T. J. (2013). Cognitive Processes in Response to Goal Failure: A Study of Ruminative Thought and its Affective Consequences. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 32(5), 482–503. https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2013.32.5.482

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2006). New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(5), 265–268. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8721.2006.00449.x

Lüscher, J., Berli, C., & Scholz, U. (2017). Goal Disengagement, Well-Being, and Goal Achievement in Romantic Couples Pursuing Health Behavior Change: Evidence from Two Daily Diary Studies. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 9(1), 36–59. https://doi.org/10.1111/aphw.12084

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Rosi, A., Cavallini, E., Gamboz, N., Vecchi, T., Van Vugt, F. T., & Russo, R. (2019). The Impact of Failures and Successes on Affect and Self-Esteem in Young and Older Adults. Frontiers in Psychology, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01795

Rowa, K. (2015). Atychiphobia (Fear of Failure). In Phobias: The Psychology of Irrational Fear (p. 40).

Schulz, R., & Heckhausen, J. (1996). A life span model of successful aging. American Psychologist, 51(7), 702–714. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066x.51.7.702

Shah, J. Y. (2005). The Automatic Pursuit and Management of Goals. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(1), 10–13. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00325.x

Smith, J. M., & Alloy, L. B. (2009). A roadmap to rumination: A review of the definition, assessment, and conceptualization of this multifaceted construct. Clinical Psychology Review, 29(2), 116–128. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2008.10.003

Sprangers, M. A. G., & Schwartz, C. E. (1999). Integrating response shift into health-related quality of life research: a theoretical model. Social Science & Medicine, 48(11), 1507–1515. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0277-9536(99)00045-3

Strauman, T. J., Costanzo, P. R., McLean, A. N., & Eddington, K. M. (2007). Social Psychology : handbook of basic principles. (2nd ed., pp. 850–868). Guilford.

Testa, M., & Major, B. (1990). The Impact of Social Comparisons After Failure: The Moderating Effects of Perceived Control. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 11(2), 205–218. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15324834basp1102_7

Vaish, A., Grossmann, T., & Woodward, A. (2008). Not all emotions are created equal: The negativity bias in social-emotional development. Psychological Bulletin, 134(3), 383–403. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.134.3.383

What are Americans afraid of? (p. 9). (1973). The Bruskin Report.

Wrosch, C., Scheier, M. F., Carver, C. S., & Schulz, R. (2003). The Importance of Goal Disengagement in Adaptive Self-Regulation: When Giving Up is Beneficial. Self and Identity, 2(1), 1–20. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298860309021

External links[edit | edit source]