Goal Control

An interview with Reed College professor Jennifer Henderlong Corpus about goals, praise, motivation, and coping with failure.

Jennifer Henderlong Corpus, a professor of psychology at Reed College, specializes in developmental psychology and academic motivation. She directs the college's Children's Motivation Project, which works with children from preschool to adolescence to learn what motivates them to learn. Failure, she thinks, cannot be understood without considering its relationship with and effect on other concepts, such as goal setting, praise, and motivation.

What is failure?

True failure is hard to define. It is the feeling that we have not met goals—when we haven't done what we wanted to do or done what we considered acceptable. Whether an individual feels that she's failed is based on her standards, whether she's adopting those standards of the society or her internal standards.

Is one type of goal-setting standard more important than another?

In general, it matters whether a goal is self-set or externally imposed. A lot of literature suggests that internal goals or activities are more beneficial in a number of ways than the ones that externally imposed. Internal goals demonstrate our need for autonomous expression. Intrinsic motives are generally associated with well-being. Failing one of those goals is perhaps more detrimental for some individuals. In other cases, an extrinsic goal becomes internalized, and it's all they care about. I'd imagine that the experience of failure depends on where you stand. Do you focus more on internally set standards or are you keyed into these external constraints?

Is there a strong relationship between the goals we set and failure?

Yes. That seems to be what failure is—feeling like you didn't do something you wanted to do, or you didn't do something you would have been able to do, or you didn't reach your potential. There's some disconnect between what you think would have ideally happened and what actually happened. Whether the goal is explicitly set and can be articulated cognitively or not seems slightly less relevant. There probably has to be some role of the self in that. That is to say, you want to win the lottery, and you don't. I wouldn't put that in the same category. Your behavior has no impact on the outcome.

I would say the same thing if you have an evaluator who you know to be biased. Say you're African American and you know this evaluator is biased against African Americans. I don't know that you would experience failure. You would attribute it to this biased person, rather than to something for which you were culpable. If you didn't have that attribution, you would think you failed because you didn't do good work. Failure would be experienced to a greater degree if you feel like the outcome is due to something about yourself.

What are the short-term and long-term consequences of failing?

The consequences are determined largely by why we think the failure happened. If we think we failed because we're African American and have a biased evaluator, who knows how much failure we might experience. But we might decide to stop being in places with people like that, or take social action to change the policies. Your behavior would be different if you thought you failed because of some controllable thing. Like you did not do as well on a test. Then you'll probably redouble your efforts, which is something you can control in the future.

What if you fail at meeting an intrinsic goal?

You're much more likely to feel shameful, despair, or give up. The thing that incites positive change is when you feel some control, even though that makes you feel more responsible and can make you feel more guilt. For example, if I failed an important test because I didn't study, I might have an emotional hit that might be different from that external place. There is an emotional cost, but it tends to spur you toward positive behavior change if you believe it's something that you can change.

If it is something that is not changeable, then you have the emotional hit and no benefit. You think “I'm bad” and that you might as well just give up. A lot of research suggests that in situations that are negative, even if it's not the person's fault ... seizing control of that situation and figuring out what you can do differently helps emotional coping down the line.

If we fail at meeting a goal set intrinsically, are those goals and values something we can change? Or are they integral to who we are?

That's a hard one. Those are failures that we feel are due to controllable causes. But that is different for every person. Some people are going to say they lack the ability to study well. People make all different kinds of attributions. That gets into attribution theory.

What is that?

Behavior happens—good, bad, whatever. How we explain that outcome has implications for how we cope and deal with it in the future. How we attribute causes to things determines our future behavior, emotions, and persistence. From an educator's perspective, the question is how do you get people to attribute failures to things that are controllable, changeable, or malleable? It's helpful to have failures happen in a context where somebody is there to help shape the attribution. Say someone does poorly on a test. You have someone who says, “I don't think you used the right strategy” or “That process wasn't the right process.” And by extension, when people do well, you want to encourage process-oriented thinking and not just give praise.

It seems that a person's past life experiences and the environment they're in is important to how they think of failure.

All those factors, and also why you think you're failing. Some people might think their [teacher] is someone who doesn't know what they're doing. A lot of things are going into it. It's miserable to be stuck in a situation where your performance is uncontrollable.

If we are not praised but did not fail, would we feel like we did, in fact, fail?

That depends on the person and his or her history of praise and reinforcement. Constantly receiving praise for very minor things can lead a person to feel he or she failed when there is an absence of praise. The trick is to communicate. It's best to get out of that praise rut and figure out what is it about the work that was strong. Then you focus on the process rather than being the evaluator that doles out feedback. Because when [the feedback] is gone, people may feel this sense of failure.

Is the distinction between process versus the evaluation a distinction between actions versus words?

You pull off the judgment in evaluation. It can focus on how the person got to that point, or what he or she was thinking. You're trying to put less weight on the outcome, and a little more weight on everything that led up to that. It's not to devalue the product, but to teach the emphasis of those underlying things. It's the self-discovery along the way, like, “I don't learn well from flashcards.” That will be beneficial in the future, even though this particular test didn't go well.

So failing can help us grow as individuals?

Right. Research shows that if you take kids who are failing miserably in school and give them a bunch of successful experiences, they keep on failing when they go back to their regular classrooms. Maybe they lack some skills or don't know how to persist. But if you take the equivalent, add some success, yet purposefully rig it so they fail, you teach these kids how people cope with failure. Then they do much better in a classroom.

How do we cope with failure?

Some people give up. Some people feel terrible about themselves, which has costs to their self-worth. Some people decide to take chances. The right answer is not always “try harder and keep doing what you're doing.” Failure can be an important marker to say that maybe you need to redirect your efforts. We value persistence in our culture, but blind persistence is not always the best thing.

In such cases, people will tell us, “Well, you failed.” But the person would need to have the confidence to say, “No, I'm doing something more in line with my talents.”

That is why it's hard for people to change course. When you've gone down a certain path, it's hard to reconstruct your identity. It depends on how keyed you are in societal rules, norms, and values. To some people, it would bother them a lot, and others would say that wasn't their thing. You would have to shore up inner resources and feel like you're making the right decision.

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