Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Goal-Setting and Marital Therapy

A recent article by Locke and Latham (2006) in Current Directions in Psychological Science reports on the status of goal-setting theory. I like setting goals in therapy because it's intuitive for most people. I don't have to teach them about irrational ideas, superegos, or schemas. It just makes sense to people to identify their therapeutic goals and how to achieve them. So, I was happy to hear that several obvious implications of goal-setting (e.g., the higher the goal, the better the performance--within limits) have good empirical support.

Much of the article was focused on industrial, not clinical psychology, but they made several observations that I found very relevant. In discussing the interaction of personality traits and goals, they differentiated between a learning orientation and a performance orientation:

The effects of goal setting as a state on the effects of goal orientation as a trait were studied by Seijts, Latham, Tasa, and Latham (2004). People with a learning goal orientation tend to choose tasks in which they can acquire knowledge and skill. Those with a performance goal orientation tend to avoid tasks where others may judge them unfavorably due to possible errors they might make. Hence they tend to choose easy tasks in which they can look good in the eyes of others. Seijts et al. (2004) found that a specific high learning goal (state orientation) is effective in increasing a person's performance regardless of their trait orientation. Performance is highest on a complex task, however, when people have a learning goal orientation and also set a learning goal. In short, the beneficial effect of a learning goal orientation can be attained by inducing it as a state.

If I can parse the academese (It's getting more difficult for me as I get older), this means:

1. People who value learning (a "learning goal orientation") prefer tasks where they can learn things.
2. People who value successful performance (a "performance goal orientation") avoid tasks where they might fail.
3. Performance is highest on complex tasks when the person has set a goal to learn new things and also has a learning goal orientation.

Yes, I know these three points are obvious. However, this is where things start to get interesting:

4. A person with a performance goal orientation will perform particularly badly under situations of high learning pressure.
5. We can induce a learning orientation by setting a goal to learn, rather than to perform.

Think of learning pressure as performance anxiety. When we are extremely anxious about our performance, it interferes with our functioning on goal-directed tasks. Hence, a student may go blank on a test, or a ballplayer (I'll leave out the Boston jokes) might drop an easy ground ball. There are some very good implications for marital therapy here.

When people come in for marital therapy they are in a state of crisis. Usually, they are saying to each other, "If you don't change, I'm leaving." But one of the most complex tasks I know is getting along with other people, especially a spouse. So, the overall goal in marital therapy is to improve how they relate to their spouse, but they are trying to do so under a state of extreme performance anxiety. No wonder marital therapy fails all too often.

Most of my clients don't have a learning orientation. Some have a performance orientation. Others have neither; they just kinda go along with life with very few goals (sometimes I envy them). The key point is that in marital therapy, there is a very high level of learning pressure.
So, the trick is to reduce the performance anxiety and increase the learning orientation. Here's my idea. I'll begin by saying:

In marital therapy our overall goal is to learn new ways of relating to each other. This is a difficult proposition. You only learn by trying, sometimes failing, and sometimes succeeding. Therapy can only work if you make it easy for the other person to try and to fail. Both of you will have to learn to tolerate each other's failures, without berating or attacking the other.

A lot of times one spouse is fed up. I expect that one person will object, saying, "I'm sick of being patient. If I let up on him/her, he/she won't change!" So, to show them the importance of reducing performance anxiety, I'll have the angry spouse do serial sevens while I badger them with, "Hurry up! If you don't get this right, I won't treat you, and your marriage is going to fail. It'll be all your fault because you couldn't do simple arithmetic. Come on! This is easy!" If I can get them laughing about this, it'll make the point. Setting a learning orientation and keeping the performance anxiety down should go a long way towards improving therapy. This will prove to be an interesting experiment.


Locke, E. A., Latham, G. P. (2006). New directions in goal-setting theory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15, 265-268.

Seijts, G.H., Latham, G.P., Tasa, K., & Latham, B.W. (2004). Goal setting and goal orientation: An integration of two different yet related literatures. Academy of Management Journal, 47, 227–239.

1 comment:

Marriage Therapist Newport Beach said...

Well said, you only learn by trying.