Pitfalls of Extrinsic Goal Pursuit: Wellbeing, Life Goals, and Self-focused Attention
Past research has shown that extrinsic goal pursuit predicts lower psychological wellbeing and maladaptive behaviours, whereas intrinsic goal pursuit predicts greater wellbeing and less distress. The research presented in this thesis was conducted to further understand the goal-wellbeing relationship with two primary aims: first, to examine the causal relationship between life goals and wellbeing; and second, to explore a cognitive mechanism that might underlie such a relationship. An initial correlational study (Study1), presented in Chapter 3, was conducted to examine the goal-wellbeing relationship in a sample of university students in New Zealand. This study also filled a gap in the goal-wellbeing literature by including assessments of hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing. The results showed that intrinsic goals were associated with both hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing regardless of their attainment, whereas extrinsic goals were associated with hedonic wellbeing only when they were attained, but they were associated with negative affect when they were being pursued. Intercorrelations among goal aspects revealed a marked difference between extrinsic and intrinsic goals. The purpose of Study 2, presented in Chapter 4, was to pre-test an experimental goal manipulation (i.e., enhancing the salience of goals) for use in subsequent studies in the thesis. Study 2 also provided an initial test of the causal effect of goal salience on wellbeing. As predicted, people primed with extrinsic goals reported lower wellbeing in terms of their mood, goal satisfaction, and vitality, compared to people primed with intrinsic goals. This study is the first to establish a causal relationship between extrinsic goals and lower acute wellbeing. Subsequent studies were designed to test possible cognitive mechanisms underlying this causal relationship. The next two studies (Study 3A and 3B), presented in Chapter 5, tested the role of self-focused attention as a possible mechanism that underlies the goal-wellbeing relationship. For this purpose, an implicit measure of self-focused attention — the Self Detection task — was developed. This task assesses how fast individuals respond to their own initials compared to other letters of the alphabet (control initials); faster response to self initials (i.e., self-referent stimuli) relative to control initials (i.e., non self-referent stimuli) was taken as an index of self-focused attention. Thus, Study 3A served as a pretest to examine the plausibility of measuring implicit self-focused attention, and to distinguish it empirically from implicit self-esteem assessed by the Name Letter Preference task (NLPT: Nuttin, 1985, 1987). No association was found between these two measures, showing that the Self Detection task does not merely reflect implicit self-esteem. In Study 3B, using the Self Detection task and other supplementary implicit self-focused attention measures (e.g., spontaneous first-person pronoun use in a written task), the direct effect of life goals on self-focused attention was examined. As predicted, compared to people primed with intrinsic goals, people primed with extrinsic goals used more first person pronouns and responded more quickly to their own initials. Thus, Study 3B provided the first empirical evidence that focusing on extrinsic goals increases self-focused attention. Study 4, presented in Chapter 6, attempted to replicate this attentional effect and to examine the full mediational model linking goals to wellbeing. The results showed that enhancing the salience of extrinsic goals made people more self-focused, replicating the previous study. The expected link between self-focused attention and wellbeing, however, was not found, possibly due to the delay between the goal manipulation and the assessment of wellbeing. Another intriguing possibility, however, is that another factor — self-focus flexibility — might moderate the impact of attention on wellbeing. Indeed, when a post-hoc analysis on self-focus flexibility (i.e., the ability to shift one’s attention away from the self) was conducted, the combination of high self-focused attention and low self-focus flexibility predicted lower mood and overall wellbeing. A final, semi-longitudinal study, presented in Chapter 7, was conducted to further investigate the possibility of adaptive (i.e., flexible) and maladaptive self-focus in the goal-wellbeing relationship using a naturally occurring stressor. The five-week study afforded the assessment of daily changes in wellbeing and the fluctuations in perceived daily stress in relation to life goals and self-focused attention. The data revealed four key findings. First, although extrinsic goal pursuit was associated with greater hedonic wellbeing (global positive and daily mood), intrinsic goal pursuit appeared to be somewhat a better predictor of wellbeing, as it was related to both hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing and buffered the generally negative decline in global positive affect over time. Second, extrinsic goals predicted greater fluctuations in reported daily stress, indicating that people who value extrinsic goals are more susceptible to stress compared to people who value intrinsic goals. Third, adaptive self-focused attention (i.e., mindfulness) partially mediated the relationship between intrinsic goals and eudaimonic wellbeing. Also, maladaptive self-focused attention (i.e., rumination) was found to moderate the relationship between extrinsic goals and daily positive mood: extrinsic goals were beneficial for wellbeing only when people ruminated less. Taken together, the studies supported the notion that not all life goals are beneficial to wellbeing. Although extrinsic goals, such as money, fame, and image were found to be associated with hedonic wellbeing, particularly when the goals were valued (Study 5) or attained (Study 1), they were also negatively associated with hedonic wellbeing when they were being pursued (Study 1). Furthermore, in no case were extrinsic goals related to eudaimonic wellbeing. Intrinsic goals, on the other hand, showed positive associations with both hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing regardless of attainment. The research presented in this thesis also provided the first evidence that maladaptive and adaptive types of self-focused attention are, albeit in different ways, involved in extrinsic and intrinsic goals. These findings are reviewed and evaluated in Chapter 8, along with the discussions of the limitations and implications of the studies.
Advisor: Halberstadt, Jamin; Conner, Tamlin
Degree Name: Doctor of Philosophy
Degree Discipline: Psychology
Publisher: University of Otago
Keywords: life goals; wellbeing
Research Type: Thesis