Personal Goals: The Key to Self-Direction in Adulthood

This is a chapter by Marlene Winell in the edited volume, Humans as Self-Constructing Living Systems: Putting the Framework to Work, Edited by M.E. Ford and D.H. Ford. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1987.


Imagine a woman opening the door of her refrigerator, rummaging through the contents of every shelf and storage compartment, and then closing the door, removing nothing from the refrigerator. Why did she do that? The answer becomes apparent only when you know that the woman had decided to have an apple and there were none in the refrigerator. Or, perhaps a man takes a gun and shoots his reflection in a mirror. His behavior doesn't make much sense until you learn that in his sleepy condition he mistook his image for a burglar. Such actions may seem incomplete and clumsy, but they are nevertheless purposeful. Indeed, people understand the meaning of each other's behavior by trying to determine their intent (Newtson, 1976; Pressey & Kuhlen, 1957). We speak of a woman changing jobs for the purpose of furthering her career, or watching television in order to relax. Thus, it seems clear that people have goals for their behavior. Our language is fun of words like hope, wish, plan, desire, expect, will, choose, intend, and decide. We have a subjective sense of being able to direct the course of our own lives to some extent.

My general thesis in this chapter is that an understanding of personal goals and goal hierarchies provides a way of thinking about humans as active organisms. Behavior is not random, nor is it explained entirely by a personal history of reacting to environmental events. A wealth of evidence indicates that human beings actively influence their own destinies (see Wadsworth & Ford, 1982a, for a review of this evidence). The term self-direction is used here to refer broadly to this concept.


Notions of human self-direction have been controversial for centuries. People have been described as biological beasts driven by bodily needs, docile social creatures molded by cultural forces, or creative, selfactualizing persons (Cofer & Appley, 1964). The role of consciousness in regulating behavior has also been an issue (Locke, 1969), and the problem of teleology has been a dominant concern (Boden, 1972). Many scholars have chosen to avoid the subject of self-direction, finding it too difficult to incorporate into models of human behavior. Yet from personal, theoretical, professional, and scientific vantage points, selfdirection continues to be an important phenomenon, one that must be considered if we are to understand the basic nature of human functioning and development.

Beliefs about one's ability to be self-directing appear to be related to human happiness and effectiveness. Empirical research in this area includes Seligman's (1975) work on learned helplessness, Bandura's (1977) focus on self-efficacy, and Rotter's (1966) concern with locus of control. DeCharms (1968) points out that feeling like an "Origin" rather than a "Pawn" has strong positive effects on behavior.

A number of personality theories have emphasized the ability to make independent decisions and direct the course of one's own behavior in descriptions of "mature" or "healthy" people (Jahoda, 1958; Maslow, 1954). In existential psychology, the "authentic" individual is able to form values and make goal-oriented decisions independent of the 11 crowd" (Hall & Lindzey, 1970). Carl Rogers' (1951) personality theory is built on the premise that humans are innately self-directing and selfactualizing. Allport (1961) believed that what the person is trying to do (intentions, hopes, wishes, ambitions, plans, aspirations), rather than the history of the person, is the most important factor in determining how they will behave in the present.

 Professionally, psychotherapy treatments often attempt to cultivate aspects of self-direction (Ford & Urban, 1963). Psychodynamic approaches focus on "ego strength," existentialists attempt to foster courage and responsibility in making "choices," and behaviorists teach  11 self-control" as an aspect of self-determination. Work in industrial psychology has also focused on goals and goal-setting processes in an attempt to help explain people's performance and satisfaction as workers (Locke, Shaw, Saari, & Latham, 1981).

In the behavioral sciences generally, developments of recent years have resulted in models that view human behavior as more complex and more active than earlier notions emphasizing linear cause-and-effect mechanisms (e.g., Bandura, 1978; Carver & Scheier, 1981; Lerner & Busch-Rossnagel, 1981; Maturana, 1975; Miller, Galanter, & Pribram, 1960; Powers, 1980). A current contribution that attempts to move this trend one step further is D. Ford's (1987) conceptualization of the human organism as a complex, self-directed system that is self-organizing and self-constructing as it develops in transaction with the environment. In this view, the "directive function" of cognition is a part of the "governing subsystems," which are responsible for various aspects of information management and behavioral organization. A central feature of this function is a continually evolving hierarchy of personal goals that serves to guide the rest of behavior.

Empirical research supports the assumption that humans have the physical structure and developmental capabilities for self-directed behavior (e.g., Bruner, 1968). Findings on cognitive and informationprocessing functions indicate that such functions are actively selective, not just reactive (Eccles, 1973; Weimer, 1977). Human abilities in the areas of consciousness, perception, attention, memory, anticipation, expectation, and intention all contribute to the capacity for self-direction (see Wadsworth & Ford, 1982a).

This brief review reveals that a number of reasons exist for continued attention to the subject of self-direction. In my own efforts to understand this aspect of human functioning, D. Ford's (1987) living systems theory has provided a useful context for studying purposive, goaldirected behavior. In the remainder of this chapter I provide an overview of my research program on personal goals, focusing on basic theoretical questions and key empirical findings. The empirical work is described in detail elsewhere (Wadsworth, 1984a, 1984b; Wadsworth & Ford, 1982a; Wadsworth & Ford, 1983; Winell, 1985).


The "goal orientation" displayed by humans can be seen as the key to self-direction and a useful heuristic for studying humans as active organisms. In this section I describe some specific propositions about personal goals and goal hierarchies as a means of explicating a living systems view of phenomena related to self-directed functioning.

What Is a Personal Goal?

Simply stated, a goal is a desired and expected consequence of human functioning. It is an informational abstract, a cognition that represents a future consequence that might be produced by one's behavior (broadly als defined). It also implies a striving to achieve that consequence. Goals can be either positive or negative in valence, representing a pleasant consequence to be attained or an unpleasant consequence to be avoided. The word personal refers to the fact that each individual's set of goals is uniquely defined by that person's developmental history and idiosyncratic interpretation of the desired consequences.

What Are the Characteristics of Personal Goals?

Range of Time/Generality. In the present approach, goals refer to all intended consequences of behavior, ranging from those pursued in daily activities to life-long hopes and dreams. Many goals exist in hierarchically organized sets, with short-term specific goals being embedded in or instrumental in achieving larger goals. Thus they form a full continuum. At an immediate level, we can speak of concrete goal-directed activities such as eating lunch with a friend in order to enjoy their companionship. Obviously one could break the behavioral sequence down further and describe means or "subgoals" such as opening the door of the restaurant in order to go in, opening the menu to see what food is available, and so forth. However, many of these behaviors can be classified as "automatic" (Deci, 1980) actions (i.e., they are not represented in consciousness as desired consequences); such actions extend all the way down to the cellular level. Therefore, for the purposes of this chapter, the elementary level for defining goals will be that of the "behavior episode," a pattern of activity organized with respect to a specific goal and available for conscious thought processing. A behavior episode begins when a goal is activated and ends when that goal is attained, evaluated as unattainable, or replaced by another goal (D. Ford, 1987).

At the other extreme of the goal continuum, we have what are usually called values: ultimate, overarching desired consequences that permeate one's life and provide it with its greatest energy and meaning. It should be noted here that the concept of "values" is used in two rather different ways in our language: (a) to denote personally desired outcomes of behavior such as intimacy, wealth, or social status, and (b) to describe broad moral judgments about how people should behave. The first type of usage falls within the present conceptualization of personal goals (see also Ford & Nichols, chapter 10 of this volume); however, the second meaning of "values" refers to the beliefs and criteria that a person uses to choose among goals and evaluate behavior. In the LSF such cognitions are classified as a part of the regulatory function of the governing subsystems.

In between the immediate and ultimate levels of a goal hierarchy are the many intermediate goals that involve weeks, months, and years to achieve. These goals are more general than immediate goals and tend to include more behavior (i.e., subgoals).

Outcomes and Processes. Some goals represent outcomes that are produced over time, such as buying a home or graduating from school. Many other goals are "process" goals that do not have a particular end point, such as staying in shape, living honestly, or appreciating beauty. Process goals are preferred ways of being and behaving. They can be pursued with considerable success over a period of time, but they are never actually achieved once and for all.

Internal/External. Goals can represent either desired internal states (e.g., good health, peace of mind, understanding a concept, having fun) or desired effects on the external environment (e.g., mastering a task, creating a product, helping a friend, beating an opponent) (Ford & Nichols' chapter 10 of this volume). Although external goals can be represented in rather abstract form (e.g., being responsible, being productive), there is usually tangible evidence on which to base evaluations of goal attainment. On the other hand, effectiveness with regard to internal goals can only be judged either by asking an individual for descriptions of their subjective experiences, or by inferring such information from observations or tests that focus on characteristics known to be associated with various internal states (e.g., relevant behavioral choices, overt emotional displays, thermometer readings, scores on tests of comprehension).

Active/Inactive. Goals can be current and actively influencing behavior, or they can be "on the shelf," like the paper to be written next semester or the garden to be started upon retirement. Only a few goals can be activated at any given moment; however, if both the immediate and higher order objectives that are pursued over a given period of time are considered "active," it is clear that a wide range of goals can be simultaneously included in one's current "agenda" of desired outcomes.

Conscious Awareness. An important point, and one that is often not fully appreciated, is that goals need not always be represented in consciousness to direct a person's activity. In other words, a person may organize their behavior to achieve a certain consequence and not be fully aware that this is what they are trying to do. However, like unseen objects in a dark room, goals must have potential awareness in order to serve an efficient and sustained directive function. Thus, like the level of generality dimension, the degree of conscious intent associated with a goal can be best thought of as a continuum. Some goals are very clear to a person and are often kept "in mind" as they are pursued, whereas others operate with little or no awareness. Consequently, a person may not always be able to think of all their goals, and on occasion might also be mistaken regarding the real goal of a behavior episode.

Rational/Irrational. Despite the connotations of logic and planfulness often associated with words like "goal" and "objective," there is nothing in the conception of personal goals offered here that requires these kinds of characteristics. Goals are simply  desired consequences -they need not be realistic or make sense to anyone else, nor must they be internally consistent or compatible with each other. Of course, goals may sometimes reflect rational, well-considered judgments (and may be more effective guides to behavior if they do), but they may also be impulsively selected or imbued with very strong emotional associations. These latter kinds of goals, especially those that are difficult to verbalize or bring into consciousness, have been of particular interest to clinical and counseling psychologists.

Why Are Goals Important?

Goals make it possible to direct and organize behavior. When people aim their actions toward a particular consequence they value, their behavior has coherence. Goals also provide a frame of reference, a set of criteria for organizing the flow of one's behavior. With goals people can choose to pursue some possibilities and eliminate others; behavior is selective and meaningful instead of random and chaotic.

By selectively directing system activity, a goal helps the system channel energy efficiently. Consider the contrast between the diffuse spray of a lawn sprinkler and water coming full blast out of a garden hose. Having a focus generates power; behavior that is organized produces results.

Goals also contribute to a person's joy and satisfaction in life as the evaluative processes of the system provide feedback concerning goal achievement. That is, when people have goals and then achieve them with some success, there is a positive feedback loop resulting in emotional satisfaction. This cycle can also be amplified by feedforward information that leads one to anticipate positive outcomes. Such expectancies are associated with emotions such as hope and excitement.

Life in general is experienced as worthwhile and purposeful when people are engaged in pursuing intrinsically valued goals, such as "important undertakings" or "gratifying" personal relationships (Klinger, 1977). Clinically, we are familiar with the depressing effect of having nothing to "live for" (e.g., Frankl, 1955; May, 1984). Without direction, life can feel meaningless, like a ship at sea being aimlessly tossed about.

This is not to say that one needs a religious or philosophical system to provide "meaning in life," nor does it imply that people need to pursue socially sanctioned achievement-oriented goals. The sense of meaning described here is the individually determined sense of coherence and satisfaction that comes from aligning various facets of one's behavior to achieve personally valued outcomes. A rich goal hierarchy with interrelated goals on many levels can produce contentment and harmony.

How Can a Goal Be Identified?

Some aspects of goal-directed behavior are objectively observable and can also be seen in nonliving entities such as servomechanisms. For example, one can observe patterns of activity that are persistent and yet variable, using feedback to stay aligned with some goal, and then ceasing when the goal is achieved (Rosenbleuth, Weiner, & Bigelow, 1968). Different degrees of self-direction are manifested by the ability to vary one's goals and means to goals in a flexible manner, and to behave effectively in varying environments (Ackoff & Emery, 1972; Moore & Lewis, 1968).

However, in describing a person's goals, objective properties alone are inadequate. We also. need to know the idea of the goal the person has in mind (Boden, 1972). For example, in a study of "How Americans Use Time," Robinson (1977) had problems interpreting mere descriptions of activity. Two different people who were similarly classified as "watching TV" might have been doing so for very different reasonsone person might have been simply trying to kill time while the other was actively enjoying the activity. In other words, in order to really understand a person's activity, it was important to know the thoughts directing it and/or whether the goal was being accomplished. Similarly, when watching an acrobat walk a high wire, it would be possible to study in operational detail the acrobat's curious muscle movements and the opposing force of gravity. However, in such an analysis the crucial hidden ingredient for understanding this behavior pattern would be missing-the acrobat's desire to stay on the wire. Thus, a goal can be inferred by an objective observer, but these inferences must bear a relationship to the ideas guiding the behavior.

How Are Goals Organized?

Goals influence each other in an organized hierarchical fashion. If an entire goal hierarchy is imagined as a pyramid made up of life domain "cones," the most ultimate goals (values) would be at the top (see Fig. 9. 1). These goals exert influence over the rest of the hierarchy, and tend to be relatively few in number. The person also has some intermediate goals, which are "goals" in the more usual lay sense of the term. They encompass many behaviors over a period of time and yet are more concrete than values. On the level of immediate goals, the hierarchy includes goals related to all of the behavior episodes that occur in a person's daily life. These are usually strongly influenced by intermediate and ultimate goals in the hierarchy. Figure 9.1 illustrates one way of depicting the multiple levels of time/generality and multiple life domains in a goal hierarchy. Note also that the hierarchy includes both articulated goals and goals outside the person's awareness.

In describing goals as a hierarchical arrangement of self-directing cognitions, there are actually many levels of goals (i.e., many more than three), representing a continuum of influences organized in complex means-ends relations. Powers (1973), in discussing multiple reference signals, has suggested that inquiring about the next-higher level of complexity would be asking a question about the "why" of a behavior and could lead to the identification of a person's ultimate ideals or values. Alternatively, asking about the next-lower level of complexity would be asking a "how" question and would address more immediate objectives that constitute strategies for larger outcomes.

This hierarchical organization does not imply that every goal is connected to some higher, "ultimate" goal. Sitting down to relax with a book may not be intended to "lead to" anything else. Similarly, at any given level goals may influence each other in significant ways or they may simply cluster in terms of having the same general purpose (ultimate goal), such as maintaining one's leisure life. In other words, goals may relate to each other in organized ways that are not necessarily sequential in time. In fact, the extent to which an individual thoughtfully prioritizes and balances multiple, sometimes competing goals and carefully plans activities that will lead to desired outcomes is more of a "personality trait" with interindividual variability than a general characteristic of human functioning.

Goal hierarchies also display the system property of "multipotentiality" in that an immediate subgoal can often lead to the attainment of multiple objectives. For example, a guest may be invited to dinner for the purposes of maintaining a social relationship, advancing business, and simply having a good time. In addition, goals function in accordance with the "equifinality principle," which states that different subgoals may all serve the same purpose. For example, a man may advance his career by having his boss over for dinner, working hard, or seeking promotions. These two key properties of goal-directed functioning, multipotentiality and equifinality, contribute to the system's efficiency and demonstrate the superb capability of the human organism for complexly organized behavior.

Goals can also be related to each other in terms of being congruent or conflicted. When a behavior serves multiple purposes, motivation is high and the system runs smoothly. For example, Staub (1980) found that prosocial helping behavior was enhanced when moral values were being served and the helping behavior was exciting. Alternatively, goals that are incongruent or in conflict, whether on the ultimate or immediate level, tend to create difficulties for the system. For example, a person attempting to do well on a task may be confused or resentful if asked to respond to someone in distress, because it would require at least temporary withdrawal from the task.

Another way in which goals provide coherence to one's overall range of life pursuits is by organizing domains of concern. People have a diversity of goals in different areas of life, such as career, family, social relationships, and the like. However, these goals often come together on the highest levels of a person's goal hierarchy. Someone who values excitement, for example, may seek it in both career (e.g., as a test pilot) and personal domains (e.g., driving fast). One behavior can also satisfy larger goals in multiple domains. For instance, a game of tennis can serve objectives that are social, health-related, and recreational.

Where Do Goals Come From?

Goal hierarchies evolve over time, beginning with the basic biological needs and preferences of an infant. As open systems, humans grow and change by exchanging energy, material, and information with their environments. With experience, they begin to abstract and store information about relationships among events. These events vary in their biological, sensory, affective, and social consequences for a person and take on different values as a result. Thus, individuals both learn and self-construct their personal goals as they transact with different aspects of their environment.

Infants first come to recognize features of their environment (e.g., mother's face or voice), then to anticipate certain events (e.g., crying is followed by mother's appearance), and finally to "intend" the occurrence of various outcomes. For example, a 6-week-old infant can learn to suck to focus a picture on a backlighted screen or to reduce sucking if the picture begins to go out of focus (Bruner, 1968). This intentional production of selective consequences represents an early manifestation of the directive function of thought.

Gradually every person accumulates abstract representations of many kinds of consequences to be sought or avoided. These informational abstracts we call "goals" evolve in organized hierarchical patterns over the years. The content of a particular person's goal hierarchy is a product of person-environment interaction. A person's physical, social, and cultural contexts will exert strong effects, as will their biological and temperamental make-up. But goals are not completely determined by these sources. Every person displays that distinctly human ability to be creative as some goals are uniquely self-constructed and the entire hierarchy is integrated according to personal values and interpretations.

What Would an Effectively Functioning Goal Hierarchy Look Like?

A general premise of the living systems framework is that beyond certain broad characteristics that appear important, many patterns of goal-seeking are probably equally satisfying and successful. However, we would generally expect to see in an effective goal hierarchy some definite long-range values that give the person strong direction, a sense of coherence and meaning, and a basis for evaluating one's overall success in life. Intermediate goals would provide concrete objectives for organizing behavior, and immediate goal achievement would provide feedback to the system in the interest of larger objectives. Positive affect would also accompany these evaluative processes. Thus we would see a balance of congruent goals at different levels of time and generality. People would be focused on the future but would also be able to experience the joy of the moment. This balance and congruence has been addressed by other scholars in describing a meaningful, integrated life (Buhler, 1965), maturity in adult development (Lowenthal, 1971), and motivation through both proximal and distal goals for behavior change (Bandura & Simon, 1977).

A person's goals should also be clear enough to provide adequate feedforward information, and should be highly valued in order to provide hope for one's future. A moderate discrepancy between the status quo and future possibilities is optimally motivating because it presents an attainable challenge, but one that requires sufficient investment of personal resources to provide a sense of accomplishment when the goal is attained. This process is facilitated by self-efficacy and personal control beliefs that support efforts to attain goals. Feedback concerning progress toward goals also facilitates performance by providing incentives for behavior and helping to keep the system on course (Bandura & Cervone, 1983; Locke, Shaw, Saari, & Latham, 1981).

A sense of satisfaction is another consequence of positive feedback. If well being is defined in the emotional sense, this is consistent with the relatively common view among emotion theorists that the primary function of emotion is to tell us how well we are doing in influencing and coping with the environment (e.g., Berscheid, 1983; D. Ford, 1987; Mandler, 1975; Plutchik, 1977).

How Do Goal Hierarchies Change Over Time?

Goal hierarchies display properties of both stability and change and therefore provide a useful heuristic for examining development, particularly in adulthood. That is, because goals provide direction for all other system functions, the evolution of a person's goal hierarchy across the life span provides insight regarding both developmental change and the absence of change.

The idea that people's priorities often change with age fits a common sense view of development and has some empirical support. For example, Wadsworth and Ford (1983) observed large differences in the goal hierarchies of college students and older adult men. Kuhlen and Johnson (1952) examined the goals of a cross-section of teachers and found striking shifts in orientation with age. They suggested that research on these changes would enhance understanding of "phases of life' in the adult years. Buhler (1965) is known for her work on "life's basic tendencies" - a few general categories of goals that drive behavior and that vary in influence as people grow older. Levinson and his colleagues  (1976) have characterized different phases of the human life cycle according to the different objectives guiding each phase. They also describe transition periods that are special times of questioning and reorganizing the "life structure." With regard to retirement, Atchley (1975) has most clearly demonstrated the heuristic utility of focusing on changing goal hierarchies in attempts to understand major transitions.

From a living systems perspective, it is reasonable to expect a person's life to include times of stability and times of change. On the one hand, people require a certain amount of sameness and predictability in order to survive and function effectively. Because we do not need to learn to walk all over again each day, we can pursue other accomplishments. But it is equally true that humans are adaptable in responding to changing conditions, and that they in fact seek change. That is, humans are self-constructing and self-organizing, not simply changing but developing with direction toward more complexity.

Thus, a personal-goal-hierarchy approach to understanding human functioning and development suggests that we can expect people to have periods in which stability appears dominant and also periods of great change. We can also expect to find important variability in the dominance of different goals from day to day and important changes in the content of goals across a lifetime. At times the person's goal hierarchy will be in flux, exhibiting more or less clarity and certainty. This is not necessarily problematic; in fact, one might be concerned about a complete absence of doubt and confusion in a person's life, because we are, after all, describing an open system.

Are There Any Problems With Being Goal-Directed?

If the term goal-directed is used with the usual lay connotation of achievement-oriented striving, then yes, a constant preoccupation with long-term goals can be a problem, robbing a person of joy in the present. An exclusive focus on materialistic and environmental goals can also be a problem if conceptual and affective consequences are neglected.

A better term to use to represent desirable features of a person's relationship to their goals is goal-oriented. The idea of orientation here refers to the state of balance in a well-tuned system. The person's behavior is governed by cherished values and goals. Although there is openness to new input, the system is basically stable and capable of self-direction. The person has a "working" goal hierarchy. The notion of goal orientation also implies that there is congruence among the levels of the hierarchy (from ultimate values to behavior episodes), producing efficiency and an overall sense of harmony.

From a living systems perspective, a person's overall life satisfaction comes from the functioning of the entire system. This includes setting goals, behaving in congruence with them, and employing the evaluative processes of the governing systems to enjoy goal achievements. This latter point is particularly important. Too often positive feedback is quickly discarded and new goals are immediately set and pursued.

Can People Be Trained to Develop More Effective Goal Hierarchies?

Yes, particularly if each of the components of an effective goal hierarchy is clearly identified and addressed in the training process. Although few such multicomponent approaches exist at present, many techniques in psychotherapy and career counseling are designed to improve awareness of needs and goals. In education, values clarification is an area that has grown to meet this need. Danish and D'Augelli (1984)  have developed a training program that emphasizes the skill of goal assessment generally as a life skill. In my own experience using theater games in a program for personal development, Timpson and I (Winell & Timpson, 1986) have directly employed the goal hieararchy model. In that training, we compare personal goal setting to the organized intentionality required of an actor. We then use performance skills training for an enjoyable process of personal growth. Feedback from participants has indicated that "aligning" goals on various levels of the goal hierarchy has been helpful.


The following broad questions have been the focus of investigation in the present research program:

1. Does the concept of a personal goal hierarchy provide a useful tool for helping to describe and understand a person's functioning?

2. How does goal orientation relate to personal well being?

3. Can a personal goal hierarchy be accurately and fully portrayed? Specifically, is it possible to develop a written self-report measure that yields a valid and reliable representation of a person's goals?

4. What are the key attributes of a personal goal hierarchy (e.g., goal importance, difficulty, clarity)?

Heuristic Utility of a Goal Hierarchy Conceptualization

In the initial stage of this research a sernistructured interview was used with people in public settings such as stores and laundromats. Six subjects were asked to describe (a) their activities of the last 5 days, (b) any purposes they had for these activities, (c) their larger goals in life, (d) priorities among these goals, and (e) evaluations of progress being made toward goal achievement. Goals were not always discussed in the lay sense of the term, as the interview questions included words like purposes, desires, ideals, wants, satisfactions, plans, and hopes.

The most striking outcome of these 10- to 20-minute discussions was that they provided significant insights into the lives of these people. Their goal descriptions revealed what they were trying to do in life and explained why they organized their behavior the way they did. For example, a 77-year-old woman said she went to see a play, baked a pie for a friend, went to church, visited a young family, worked in her yard, went shopping, and attended a bridge club. Her goals were to help out friends, keep busy and not stagnate, live from day to day, stay alive, and keep active. Her most important purpose was to keep in contact with friends. Her affect was positive and she reported satisfaction with her progress toward her goals.

On the other hand, a 19-year-old boy sitting on a curb was depressed and not feeling well. He reported spending his time "getting high," working, wrecking a car, and seeing about his Graduation Equivalency Diploma. His purposes were to have money, pay debts, get his car going, and waste time. His larger goals were to race cars, feel good, and have a career in auto mechanics. He reported progress as "not so hot."

The formal study following this pilot work was called Project AIMS: Adult Intentional and Motivational Systems (Wadsworth & Ford, 1982, 1983). This study consisted of expanded interviews, each lasting about 80 minutes, with 53 male subjects. Subjects first described their important goals, purposes, and ideals in life, as well as their major fears and worries (avoidance goals). Subjects were then asked to report their activities of the previous 4 days and explain their goals in relation to each activity. Next, subjects were questioned about their activities, goals, plans, and satisfactions in six domains of life: work and school, family, social life, leisure activities, personal concerns, and material/environmental concerns. Finally, each person was asked some general questions regarding any additional goals not yet covered, priorities assigned to important goals mentioned, and several other aspects of the person's functioning as they related to goals, such as life satisfaction, perceived control, self-efficacy, and the like.

These interviews were then coded through a complex process of extracting goal statements from the protocols and placing them on the "AIMS Chart," a 24 in. x 36 in. "map" of a particular goal hierarchy. Goals were placed on the map according to life domains and level of time/generality. Arrows were drawn between goals that were expressed with a means-end connection. Each chart thus offered a graphic pictorial view of a personal goal hierarchy, and provided quantifiable data on such variables as goal frequency, distribution of goals across domains and levels, and means-end organization of goals (see Table 9.1 for an illustrative AIMS Chart).

The general conclusion of this study was that a detailed representation of a person's goal hierarchy yields rich and often revealing information about that person's life. When subjects were given the opportunity to view the AIMS Chart constructed from their interviews, many exclaimed over the Chart's completeness and some achieved new insights about themselves. For example, one student was quite struck with the contradiction between his long-range goal of owning his own business and his daily activity pattern, which fell mostly in the recreation domain. This was clear to him only upon seeing his chart.

Goal Orientation and Well Being

Based on a host of literature on topics related to self-direction, it was hypothesized in this study that people who have clear goals in life would experience more personal effectiveness and satisfaction. Before examining the data relevant to this hypothesis, however, it is useful to explore further the significance of this kind of approach by contrasting it with another, more common approach to the problem of understanding well being.

Relationship to "Coping." The language used in the large and growing literature on coping and its relationship to well being implies a reactive organism. For example, researchers in this field typically center their discussion around terms such as adaptation  (Coelho, Hamburg, & Adams, 1974), tension management (Antonovsky, 1979), defense mechanisms (Vaillant, 1977), appraisal of threat  (Lazarus, Averill, & Opton, 1974), adjustment (Rahe, 1978), and self-protection (Pearlin & Schooler, 1978). Some investigators have discussed more active forms of coping such as problem solving (Goldfried, 1980), anticipatory behavior (Hamburg & Adams, 1967), and planning (Danish, Smyer, & Nowak, 1980), but the concern is still with how people respond or react to problems. .

In contrast, the emphasis in the present research program is on the ability of people to conceptualize desired outcomes and pursue personal goals in an active, positive manner, thereby opening up new developmental pathways and moving their lives toward a vision of a better future. This approach involves a different lexicon and leads to rather different research questions and intervention efforts. The alternative term I use to describe this approach is thriving rather than  coping (Wadsworth, 1983). (Lefcourt, 1984, has also used the term thriving.) This is not to say that people can ignore negative life events and skills for coping with such events, but we do need to include more fully the proactive dimension in our efforts to understand the processes contributing to personal well being.

Click to enlarge Table 1

Correlates of Goal Directedness in Project AIMS.  The impressionistic observation of interviewers and coders in Project AIMS was that, for these 53 subjects, having meaningful goals was important for well being and life satisfaction. The effective, happy people in the study were not just "coping" with life, they were actively pursuing what they wanted most out of life. They also exhibited more "zest" in living, a variable that has been used to measure life satisfaction (Neugarten, Havighurst, & Tobin, 1961). In addition, subjects' responses to open-ended questions about beliefs and expectations suggested that the more satisfied people were those who had a greater sense of responsibility for their own happiness (perceived control) and a strong belief in their own selfefficacy. Other variables that appeared to be related to life satisfaction were perceived opportunity for achieving goals and progress toward goal attainment (Wadsworth & Ford, 1982). All of these are attributes generally associated with self-direction.

To examine these relationships quantitatively, subjects also completed a written questionnaire that measured variables to be compared with AIMS Chart data. Four measures of well being and five measures of goal directedness were intercorrelated, along with measures of four other variables: perceived control, self-efficacy, perceived opportunity, and progress toward achievement. The general expectation was that the measures of well being would be correlated with each of the indices of goal directedness (see Table 9.2).

The most surprising result of this analysis was that, although the correlations among the separate sets of well-being and goal-directedness measures were quite high (providing convergent validity for these constructs), correlations between the two sets of measures were mostly low and nonsignificant. All 20 of these correlations were positive, however, and a few did reach statistical significance.

Of particular interest was the finding that the well-being measures were much more highly correlated with the four variables representing regulatory feedback and feedforward influences on the directive process (perceived control, self-efficacy, perceived opportunity, and progress toward achievement) than with those directly assessing directive functioning. The conclusion reached was that the directive function affects other aspects of behavior in a more complex manner than expected. Processes supporting goaldirected functioning (e.g., perceived probability of goal attainment) may be more predictive of well being than simply the existence of personal goals. In fact, an excessive emphasis on goals may have negative consequences such as anxiety (Erickson, Post, & Paige, 1975) or the familiar Type A behavior pattern.

Click to enlarge Table 1

These data are consistent with a broader systems view in which goal directedness is better understood as a set of interrelated processes than as a simple outcome of directive thoughts. As illustrated in Fig. 9.2, these processes include goal setting (direction), planning (control), goal-directed action and information collection (transaction with environment), and the evaluation of goal achievement (regulation), all influenced by effort and emotion (arousal functions). Thus, it follows that the experience of well being would depend on the success of this entire cycle. Some positive affect might accompany the process of defining and setting goals, but it would be primarily associated with goal achievement or the evaluation of progress toward achievement. In support of this hypothesis, the only goal-related variable in the analysis of the AIMS data that did correlate significantly with measures of well being was  perceived progress toward goal achievement, with correlations ranging from .37 to .53 (all p < .01).

Measurement of Goal Hierarchies

A major effort in this research program has been to attempt to find sound ways to measure personal goal hierarchies. If we can find a way to assess a person's goals more clearly and completely, we can better study the properties of directive thoughts and the ways in which these thoughts relate to other system processes.

The AIMS Interview. As noted earlier, the AIMS interview was designed to produce more complete data on goals and goal-related phenomena than existing instruments could provide. Psychometric tests of validity and reliability have been very encouraging in this regard (Wadsworth & Ford, 1983). However, the procedures of interviewing, training, and coding are complex and require a significant investment of time and energy. Thus, it was concluded that whereas the interview method may have certain advantages in small-scale studies and with special populations, a self-administered paper-and-pencil form of the AIMS interview would be a more generally useful instrument. It was also thought that an expanded measure providing more detailed information about the characteristics of goals would be helpful.

The Personal Goal Inventory (PGI). This self-report measure was developed in several stages in order to discover the most appropriate written format and to test the effectiveness of different kinds of verbal instructions and coaching. As a result, the PGI now has two parts: the AIMS Chart, which is similar to the coded interview charts of Project AIMS, and the Goal Description Scales (GDS).

In the first part of the PGI, subjects list their goals in 21 boxes provided on three pages of forms organized by life domain and level of time/generality. In the second section, Likert-type scales are used to evaluate the set of goals listed in each domain on the following 13 dimensions: importance (How important are the goals in his category of your life?), positivity (How much joy or pleasure will you experience if you accomplish these goals?), probability  (Overall, how likely are you to reach these goals?), opportunity (How much do or will your life circumstances [e.g., your living situation, environment, resources, other people, etc.] permit you to pursue these goals?), activity (How actively involved are you with pursuing these goals right now?), difficulty (How difficult do you consider these goals for you to achieve?), progress (How would you evaluate your progress toward achieving these goals?) challenge versus threat (Do you perceive these goals primarily as problems to cope with or as challenging opportunities?), self-efficacy (How confident are you about your ability to achieve these goals?), investment (To what extent will you invest time, effort, money, and/or materials into achieving these goals?), attribution (Does achieving these goals depend on You or on other people, fate, or God?), clarity (How clear are the goals you have listed in this category?), and steps (How clear are you on the Steps You need to take to achieve these goals?).

 Tests of reliability and validity on the PGI have been fairly extensive and are reported elsewhere (Wadsworth, 1984a; Winell, 1985). Results have been quite positive and have included a few surprises. For example the written AIMS Chart appears to be even  more complete than the interview version with regard to goal content (mean number of goals = 38.2 vs. 33.7, respectively, in a study with six adult women who completed both the interview and the written PGI). Another pleasant surprise was the strong and consistent evidence supporting the construct validity of the Goal Description Scales. Five separate factor analyses repeatedly yielded primary factors labeled expectancy (i.e., current assessments and future predictions of goal attainment progress), value (i.e., indices of intrinsic motivation such as positive affect and willingness to invest resources), ease (i.e., degree of effort needed for goal attainment), and clarity (i.e., degree to which goals and means to goals can be specifically or precisely defined). (See Wadsworth, 1984b for further details.)

These results appear to be consistent with both traditional and more recent theorizing about goal-related processes. For example, expectancy and value are widely regarded as key elements of motivation (e.g., Atkinson, 1964; Mitchell, 1974; Vroom, 1964), hope (Erickson, Post, & Paige, 1975), and "current concerns" (Klinger, Barta, & Maxeiner, 1980). Moreover, in the living systems view, the most distinctive attribute of human functioning is related to the concept of expectancy. That is, people are capable of self-directed, self-organized behavior because they can anticipate the future and assess probable outcomes of behavior.

The reliability assessments of the Goal Description Scales (GDS) consisted of test-retest coefficients of stability on the scales and on tile individual items, and coefficient alpha tests of internal consistency. These were quite high in most cases. However, in assessing test-retest reliability, an interesting finding was that the subjects themselves were needed to judge the comparability of goals. For example, in one case "finish class project" and "do research report" were judged by the Subject to be [lie same in meaning, and therefore in agreement from tile first occasion of measurement to the second. Another important problem in assessing the reliability of the PGI can be imagined from this example. What if the class project got finished during the interval between these two occasions of measurement? The goal would obviously not appear on the second AIMS Chart and could well be replaced by a new goal, such as passing a final exam. Thus, with an instrument of this kind, tile difference between reliability and stability is critical. As explained by Nesselroade (1983), reliability describes a measurement situation whereas stability describes a psychological phenomenon or process. These can be confounded using an ordinary test-retest correlation coefficient.

In this case, it is clear that a goal hierarchy is a changing phenomenon. Moreover, we would expect from a living systems perspective that short-term goals would change more often than medium-term goals, which would in turn change more rapidly than long-term goals. And indeed, such a pattern did emerge from the present study. Reasons given by subjects for changes in their goal hierarchy included goals becoming undesirable, completed, important, or forgotten.

Based on this research, the potential for measuring personal goal hierarchies appears promising. The Personal Goal Inventory has desirable psychometric properties and yields a fairly rich view of goal hierarchies. A limitation is that the PGI requires a certain level of literacy and self-awareness, and is therefore most appropriate for use with adults. Future research on the measurement of goal hierarchies might profitably focus attention on the problem of representing goals as part of a dynamic stream of human activity, perhaps by having multiple measurement occasions. This would provide important information about the consistencies and variability in a person's functioning.


The PGI has the potential of being not only an assessment tool but also an actual part of treatment. It appears that people benefit from the process of articulating their goals on the PGI and examining the result. Thus, this procedure may serve as a technique for setting goals for personal therapy, and may even be an essential step in therapy for a client who is struggling with ambiguities of identity and direction. The process of measurement can be a repeated part of treatment, providing both impetus for change and recording progress. This idea is similar to the use of Goal Attainment Scaling in monitoring counseling goals (Kiresuk & Sherman, 1968). However, the PGI has the advantage of encompassing life goals and the properties of these goals more completely.

Attention to personal goals is a way of focusing on the importance of self-direction for effective and happy living. In counseling, this principle is important because clients benefit from taking an active role in the therapy process. Self-attributed change is more generalized over situations and maintained to a greater extent than behavioral change attributed to an external agent or force (Kanfer, 1979). Thus, personal and career counselors need to remember that in helping clients identify and achieve their goals, this process and the goals themselves must be the client's own. In my own clinical practice, I find this aspect of the human condition to be the most painful and the most exciting. As therapists, we must try to inspire courage.

In short, the theory and research on self-direction presented here has a general implication for the helping professions: the best way to help is to facilitate self-help, that is, self-direction. This is not only a philosophical position based on conceptions of personal responsibility, it is also a scientifically defensible position based on knowledge of human motivation. Specifically, people appear to thrive when they can successfully achieve, through their own actions, the goals that they have chosen. That is particularly true if "action" is defined broadly to include cognitive means of control (e.g., vicarious and interpretive control strategies), such as those emphasized in Eastern cultures (Azuma, 1984; Weisz, Rothbaum, & Blackburn, 1984).

This principle also guides the efforts of social programs designed to "empower" community groups to have an impact on their own lives (Rappaport, 1977), as well as training intended to "empower" teachers in their selection of instructional methods (Timpson, 1985). Thus, in constructing social policy, we should act with an awareness of the subjective importance of attaining desired outcomes (goods and services) through one's own efforts rather than by having things "handed on a silver platter" (DeCharms, 1968).


In this chapter, the argument has been presented that self-direction is important for understanding and enhancing human functioning. With adults, the concept is especially relevant because of the increased awareness and ability adults have to be responsible for their own lives. A personal goal hierarchy was presented as the key feature of selfdirection. All people are "goal-directed" by virtue of being alive. We all organize action toward achieving outcomes, whether or not this process is conscious or clear. However, some people are more aware of their directive thoughts than others, and some manifest greater congruency in the way they pursue immediate, intermediate, and ultimate objectives. These latter individuals are more "goal-oriented" in that their behavior better fits chosen goals and values.

Skills involved in being goal-oriented can be learned; however, research on well being indicates that the simple existence of goals is not sufficient for happiness and life satisfaction. Personal goal hierarchies are important, but only in the context of a larger pattern of effectively organized goal-directed functioning. Interventions to enhance a person's goal orientation must therefore focus on multiple components of the person-in-context and the ways in which these components are organized.

At a more theoretical level, it seems clear that in both basic and applied areas of the behavioral sciences, one's model of human behavior makes a tremendous difference. Whether we view humans as reactive organisms responding to forces surrounding them or as self-constructing living systems who play an active part in choosing the direction that their lives will take has an enormous impact on how we approach our research and intervention efforts. Our theoretical orientation influences the questions we ask and the course of our investigations into human behavior in both direct and subtle ways. Throughout the history of psychology we have studied in great detail the many effects of environmental conditioning. "Self-influences," in contrast, have received less study. The living systems framework is an exceptionally useful tool for conceptualizing and investigating such influences because of its unique emphasis on the importance of self-direction and self-regulation in human functioning and the central role it gives to self-organizing and self-constructing processes in human development.

Life has been compared to a maze, with a continuous series of choice points (Taylor, 1960). In this sense, one might agree with the existentialists that people create their own existence through choices, albeit not always consciously. Choices make individuals unique, and every person's hierarchy of valued goals is a special product of that individual's experience. Considering the indications we have that self-direction plays an important part in explaining human behavior and providing means for enhancing human welfare, it seems incumbent upon both the scientific and professional communities that we learn more about this phenomenon. The idea of more deliberately choosing and developing one's own life course is an exciting prospect to consider.


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