Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (JUL 2012)
Article: On the Value of Aiming High: The Causes and Consequences of Ambition
Authors: T.A. Judge, J.D. Kammeyer-Mueller
Reviewed By: Ben Sher
Are you striving for money than Donald Trump, more cars than Jay Leno, more medals than Michael Phelps, or an even louder stereo than the one my neighbor plays at 2am? If so, it sounds like you might be ambitious. But how exactly do we define ambition? And where does it come from? That’s trickier. Luckily, a recent study by Judge and Kammeyer-Mueller (2012) explains what ambition really is, where it comes from, and what it leads to.
The authors define ambition as “The persistent and generalized striving for success, attainment, and accomplishment”, and explain that it usually involves setting goals. This differs from conscientiousness or the need to achieve. Ambition is specifically concerned with outcomes like money or prestige, whereas people who feel a need to achieve are more interested in developing skill and competence, and are less concerned about material rewards. How is ambition different from aspirations? Aspirations refer to a very specific goal that a person strives for. Ambition is a trait, which means it refers to behavior which is consistent over time. The ambitious person continues to find new goals to strive for.
The authors note the divergent attitudes society has taken toward ambition. Historically, some writers have viewed ambition as a good thing, because it seems to lead toward hard work and success. However, others have considered ambition a vice, because its over-emphasis on the pursuit of external wealth leads to inadequate emphasis on internal fulfillment and happiness. So what does research say?
In this study, the authors used more than sixty years of data from the Terman life-cycle study, which led them to the positive side of ambition. First, they identified several underlying factors related to ambition. These include conscientiousness, extraversion, low neuroticism, general mental ability, as well as parents’ occupational prestige. This makes ambition a mid-level trait, meaning it is a combination of these more fundamental factors, and is more directly related to behavior and outcomes.
So what outcomes does ambition predict? The authors found that ambitious people achieved higher levels of education, had more prestigious jobs, and had higher income. This eventually led to modest increases in life satisfaction and longevity, but not the dismal curse of emptiness and discontent that might be expected. Not too bad, right?
What does this study mean? While it’s easy to take common vague terms like ambition and invoke the expression “I know it when I see it”, doing so might not always lead to good practice. As I-O psychologists, our standard needs to be higher. Studies like this highlight the importance of well-defined traits, as well as the need for exploring the role of specific traits in workplace success and happiness.
human resource management, organizational industrial psychology, organizational management