Performance Under Fire: Goal Orientation

When you’re trying to complete a task, do you try to learn something new along the way or do you just try to get the job done and not embarrass yourself? For example, when you need to complete the task of baking a cake, do you try the latest recipe so as to learn something new and broaden your culinary skills? Or do you avoid any recipe that looks hard and pray that everything comes out right so that you don’t embarrass yourself at your next dinner party? If you chose the former, you have a mastery goal orientation, and if you chose the latter, you have a performance-avoidance goal orientation.

Goal Orientation: Mastery vs. Performance-Avoidance

Now that you’re becoming more familiar with goal orientation, let’s throw in a twist. Imagine that you have one hour to bake the cake. In this scenario, would you adopt a mastery goal orientation or a performance-avoidance goal orientation? According to the study by James Beck of the University of Waterloo & Aaron M. Schmidt of the University of Minnesota, when under time pressure, people do not utilize a mastery goal orientation and more frequently adopt a performance-avoidance goal orientation. This makes sense. If you have 30 minutes to bake a cake, you’re probably not going to try something new and instead rely on a recipe that you’ve done before. Going one step further, this study also found that goal orientation affects performance, as people with a mastery goal orientation typically performed better than those with a performance-avoidance goal orientation. So, in sum, time pressure affects goal orientation that in turn affects performance.

For this study, there was a sample of 111 undergraduates who indicated their sense of time pressure and goal orientation before four different exams during a semester. Questions such as “I am constantly running out of time for this class” and “I am working under excessive time pressure” assessed time pressure; questions such as “In statistics class, I look for opportunities to develop new skills and knowledge” and “I prefer to avoid parts of statistics class where I might perform poorly” assessed goal orientation; and scores on exams measured performance.

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