When Lady Gaga tells us in her latest hit single that everything she does is "for the applause," is that a message that we should be celebrating? Or is it something to worry about?
And, while we're talking Gaga, what about her well-known proclamation that people are who they are because they were Born That Way? Yes, she meant it to be a song about sexuality -- which, let me be perfectly clear, is not the target topic of this post. Yet a quick Google search for "born this way" reveals that the intended focus on sexual orientation hasn't stopped thousands of people from using the "born this way" refrain to justify any number of undesirable personality traits, ranging from disagreeableness to math ineptitude to impulsivity and aggression. It's not my fault that I'm disagreeable, or bad at math, or impulsive - I was born this way! Can't change it! Let's just celebrate who I am!
So does it matter if you think that when it comes to your personality, intelligence, or personal skills, your abilities and traits were set at birth? Does Lady Gaga's belief that she was "born" the way she is have anything to do with the fact that everything she does is all "for the applause"? And is any of this a bad thing?
In fact, it truly does matter -- and it is actually a really bad message to send out about goals and motivation.1 Research shows that there are, in fact, two broad ways in which people tend to conceptualize their own skills, traits, and abilities. Entity theorists believe that attributes such as personality characteristics, athletic ability, or intelligence are relatively stable traits that are pretty much fixed at birth -- in other words, whatever you happen to be like, you probably think that you were "born that way." However, if you’re an incremental theorist, you believe that attributes are malleable, meaning that they can always be improved with practice and effort.
Moving to a slightly different (yet related) domain, research on goal theory also reveals that there are two broad types of goal orientations. You might have a mastery (or learning) goal, in which your primary focus is on mastering difficult material, learning and understanding complex topics, and truly improving at a task. Or, you might have a performance (or ego) goal, in which your primary focus is on demonstrating competence, avoiding negative evaluations, and publicly showing that you are "good" at something. In the former, your focus is internal -- you are presumably trying to master some kind of skill or material for your own benefit, so you can genuinely learn and grow, regardless of what others happen to think of your ability or performance. In the latter, your focus is external -- you are presumably focused on the evaluations of others, and worrying more about what they think or say than about your actual progress. In other words, you might be doing it all for something like applause.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, those two different outlooks on personality & skills mentioned two paragraphs above predict how people come to form mastery or performance goal orientations. People with entity views typically prioritize “looking good” over actually developing competence, leading them to focus on performance (rather than mastery) goals. After all, if you believe that you are born with a set ability level and it can’t really be altered, it makes more sense to focus on how you appear (trying to maximize your positive evaluations from others) rather than wasting your time in a futile attempt to change your innate ability level. Incremental theorists, on the other hand, are more likely to set goals that revolve around learning and increasing competence. Generally, this becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy: People who believe that they can improve their abilities with hard work usually end up working harder, and they gain mastery and become better in that domain as a result.
In fact, studies consistently link mastery (or learning) goals to more adaptive outcomes than performance goals. For example, MBA students who set learning goals (like mastering complex course material) outperform MBA students who set performance goals (like getting a high GPA). Teenagers who hold entity beliefs about athletic ability tend to be less motivated to pursue athletic goals, whereas teens with incremental beliefs are more likely to enjoy sports and genuinely want to increase their athletic abilities. Holding incremental beliefs is significantly more adaptive for both learning and performance — believing that you can improve is better for both motivation and enjoyment than believing that you must be “born” into greatness. This is because people with mastery goals also exhibit higher levels of intrinsic motivation, self-regulation, persistence in the face of challenge or possible failure, and metacognition (an overarching term for the ways in which we plan, monitor, and evaluate our progress on important goals to help us ensure that we're always engaging in the best possible strategies).
As Carol Dweck (one of the leading researchers on this topic) explains in the video above, all of this put together makes a lot sense. Even though you might not see the differential effects of these goals in the face of success, they certainly emerge in the face of failure. People with incremental theories believe that they are always capable of learning, growing, and improving. As a result, failing on a difficult task is not necessarily a personal threat. Rather, it might just be a cue that this is a task on which he/she needs to work harder -- it is an opportunity to learn and grow. People with entity theories, however, do not believe that they can truly change their abilities. Thus, there is no point in responding to criticism or negative feedback by working harder or persisting on a difficult task -- after all, if you can't improve, what's the point? As a result, any negative feedback is seen a threat. Therefore, they are more likely to seek out situations in which they are likely to excel and "appear" smart or talented. This can be fine for a while, but it severely limits entity theorists' capacities to grow and reach their full potential. After all, if you are terrified of negative feedback, you are more likely to give up on a task when faced with failure and less likely to persist in the face of a challenge.
Of course, as with most things, it's not completely all-or-nothing. For example, one might note that it’s not necessarily a “this-or-that” distinction. There is a chance that people could hold both entity and incremental theories about ability. As Richard Schmidt wrote in Motor Control and Learning about these theories in the specific context of athletic ability, “abilities represent the collection of ‘equipment’ that one has at his or her disposal and limit the effect of learning on performance.” Essentially, you might also believe that abilities are determined by genetics and can be described as something you are “born with,” but you can still greatly improve your skills by working hard. Take running, for example. Dominant sprinters must have an abundance of fast-twitch muscle fibers in their legs, which give them the explosive power and speed necessary to run 100 meters in 10 seconds. Marathoners’ legs, on the other hand, are filled with slow-twitch muscle fibers, which provide the endurance to maintain aerobic activity over an extended period of time. Certain groups of people are born with more slow- or fast-twitch muscle fibers, which can predispose them to be better at sprinting or distance running. However, regular workouts and focused training can also alter the form of your muscles, so you can change your muscle composition and improve your performance at sprinting or running marathons. Even so, you still might not ever reach the performance level of a runner who was born with a more adaptive muscle composition, especially if he/she has also trained hard. Therefore, running success depends on a delicate balance of several different key variables – it helps to be born with the genetic predisposition towards the “right” body type, but once that body type is in place, it is even more helpful to believe that one’s abilities can be improved and work hard as a result. While not everyone is born with the ideal body type to become the fastest man or woman in the world, it is still optimal for most positive outcomes to maintain the belief that you can improve your abilities through hard work and effort.
Furthermore, when it comes to performance goals, not all of them are created equal -- nor are they equally bad. Performance goals can be broken down even further into performance-approach goals and performance-avoidance goals. Performance-approach goals, like those held by our dear friend Gaga, involve a focus on acclaim, praise, or accolades -- in other words, someone with a performance-approach goal is approaching, or seeking out, positive performance evaluations. These goals are not as beneficial as mastery goals, but they are more adaptive than performance-avoidance goals, which would be held by someone whose main goal is to avoid public criticism, blame, or judgment for his/her performance. So, if Gaga were singing about how her main motivation in life is to avoid being "booed," it would be more worrisome than her current focus on applause.
Even so, it is not particularly desirable or adaptive to focus on performance goals at all -- and if I had the chance to tell Gaga anything right now, it would probably be the fact that encouraging a generation of young minds to be entity theorists with performance goals is not a particularly good way to set them up to persist in the face of failure, confront any challenges they might face, and work hard towards important goals.
But hey, on a lighter note -- who would have guessed a few years ago that in a 2013 battle of the Pop Divas, a different well-known blonde singer would be the one coming out with a more empirically sound message about motivation?
1. Not sexuality. Again, this is not a post about sexuality. Please do not comment and try to make it a post about sexuality. Any comments about the biological roots of sexual orientation and whether or not you personally believe they exist will not be allowed through moderation.
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Dweck, C.S. (1986). Motivational processes affecting learning. American Psychologist, 41, 1040-1048.
Dweck, C. (1992). The study of goals in psychology. Psychological Science, 3, 165-167
Dweck, C.S., & Leggett, E. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95, 256-273.
Latham, G. P., & Brown, T. C. (2006). The effect of learning vs. outcome goals on self-efficacy and satisfaction in a MBA program. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 55, 606-623.
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Sarrazin, P., Biddle, S., Famose, J.P., Cury, F., Fox, K., & Durand, M. (1996). Goal orientations and conceptions of the nature of sport ability in children: A social cognitive approach. British Journal of Social Psychology, 35, 399-414
Schmidt, R.A. (1982). Motor Control and Learning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
VandeWalle , D. (1997). Development and validation of a work domain goal orientation instrument. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 8, 995-1015.
Image of Lady Gaga available via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license via PlumeDeCheval at Flickr.
Portions of this post have been copied or paraphrased from an earlier blogpost written by myself in August 2012 on whether or not people believe they ever could have achieved Olympic greatness. The original post can be found here.