Goal-Setting Theory

Action & Decision-Making

Locke and Bryan (1966)

Can specific and difficult goals increase our motivation and performance?


“Do your best” is a common instruction in many different organizational settings (athletic, educational, professional, etc.) However, as noted by Locke and Latham (2002), “when people are asked to do their best, they do not do so.” The reason, as explained by the authors of Goal-Setting Theory, is that “do-your-best goals have no external referent and thus are defined idiosyncratically. This allows for a wide range of acceptable performance levels (…)”. More precisely, effective goals have two characteristics: they are specific, and difficult, i.e., hard to reach given the person’s potential and level of ability. According to Goal-Setting Theory, “self-competition” increases performance because of its impact on effort and motivation. Indeed, this theory “is based on Ryan’s (1970) premise that conscious goals affect action”, which “anciticipat[ed] the cognitive revolution in psychology” by departing from the “anticonsciousness zeitgeist” of the 50s and 60. At the time, behaviorists and need theorists argued that human behavior depended entirely on factors outside of the conscious person—either environmental or subconscious factors. If motivation played a role, it was merely a by-product of external incentives or hidden drives. To the contrary, the aim of Goal-Setting Theory was to investigate and develop ways to leverage, for their own benefit,  the conscious influence that individuals do have on their own behavior. 

Participants & Procedures

28 students (paid male volunteers) from University of Maryland (College Park, MD, USA).

The experiment was introduced as a study of the way in which motor skills develop and relate to each other. More precisely, participants were asked to complete a complex coordination task: turning on green lights  with a foot pedal and a joystick to reproduce successive patterns of red lights displayed in front of them. There were 13 different patterns overall, and the participants completed 12 trials of 10mn, with 2mn rest period in between. After an initial practice trial of 2mn, during which they were told to do their best, participants were assigned to 4 different groups using matched-pairs design (based on their initial performance).

Half of the subjects were assigned to the “Standards” condition (as in “standards of performance”, or specific goals) and given specific performance goals to beat on each trial. These goals were fixed increments on their previous score, and meant to be “moderately difficult”, i.e., such that participants would be able to beat them less than 30% of the time. In addition, subjects in this condition were told that the goals constituted what the researchers considered to be successful performance on the task, based on their experience, and represented “above average performance for college students”. The other half of the participants were assigned to the “No standards” control condition, and simply told to “do their best”.

Importantly, subjects in the “No standards” condition knew when their responses were correct, as this is when the patterns changed, but did not know what their score was over a relevant period of time. This was done to prevent them from setting their own goals. 


As can be seen in the graph above, the results confirmed that specific and hard-to-reach goals had a positive influence on performance. Importantly, the effect was immediate, and the difference between the two main conditions increased continually. Indeed, the goals helped participants improve their performance between trials at every stage of the experiment. What is more, participants in the “Standards” condition outperformed those in the “No standards” condition in every 2mn segment of every 10mn trial. While previous studies such as Mace (1935) had found that the main effect of goal-setting was to prolong effort, this suggests that specific and difficult objectives actually improve performance from the very beginning and help prevent lapses in effort. The researchers concluded that, although “do your best” is a typical instruction in most organizational settings (educational, professional, athletic, etc.), such instructions may not result in the highest possible level of performance. To the contrary, specific and difficult goals have a positive impact on motivation, which has a causal influence on behavior.

IA Tip

In line with IB guidelines, we recommend that students only compare two conditions in their experiment and obtain a single measurable result for each participant in each condition. Doing otherwise would complicate inferential statistics without any benefit as far as the IA is concerned.

Here, students will obviously have to modify the task that participants have to perform. For instance, this study is a partial replication of Mace (1935), which tested the influence of goal-setting by asking participants to perform mathematical calculations. 

Given the background theory, students could simply explore the effect of goal-setting in general, or go further and compare the impact of different types of goals (for instance, very easy and moderately hard) on performance. However, they should only compare two conditions. Likewise, they should obtain a single measure per participant. They could collect data on multiple trials and discuss the evolution of participants’ performance in relation to the background theory in their “Evaluation” section. However, this is not required and their “Analysis” section should only compare two sets of data (e.g., scores on a single trial or difference in performance between a first and last trial).


Locke, E. A., & Bryan, J. F. (1966). Cognitive aspects of psychomotor performance: The effects of performance goals on level of performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 50(4), 286–291.