Should you pursue mastery or focus on outdoing others?

The current article presents an overview of recent research into social outcomes that accompany the pursuit of achievement goals. On the basis of investigations in various subdisciplines of psychology, we conclude that mastery goals—striving to improve one’s own performance—lead to investments in exchange relationships, endorsement of reciprocity norms, and active efforts to integrate different opinions. In contrast, performance goals—striving to outperform others—may result in rather maladaptive social behaviors. We point to three promising avenues for future research: Social consequences of achievement goals could be studied from a multiple-goal perspective, different levels of analysis should be taken into account, and the role of status differences should be examined.

Source: “Toward a More Social Understanding of Achievement Goals, The Interpersonal Effects of Mastery and Performance Goals” from Current Directions in Psychological Science

APA breaks it down:

Poortvliet’s work focuses on information exchange—whether people are open and honest when they are working together. “People with performance goals are more deceitful” and less likely to share information with coworkers, both in the laboratory and in real-world offices he has studied, Poortvliet says. “The reason is fairly obvious—when you want to outperform others, it doesn’t make sense to be honest about information.”

On the other hand, people who are trying to improve themselves are quite open, he says. “If the ultimate goal is to improve yourself, one way to do it is to be very cooperative with other people.” This can help improve the work environment, even though the people with these goals aren’t necessarily thinking about social relations. “They’re not really altruists, per se. They see the social exchange as a means toward the ends of self improvement.” Other research has found that people with these self-improvement goals are more open to hearing different perspectives, while people with a performance goal “would rather just say, ‘I’m just right and you are wrong.’”

It’s not always bad to be competitive, Poortvliet says. “For example, if you want to be the Olympic champion, of course it’s nice to have mastery goals and you should probably have mastery goals, but you definitely need performance goals because you want to be the winner and not the runner-up.” 

But it’s important to think about how goals affect the social environment. “If you really want to establish constructive and long-lasting working relationships, then you should really balance the different levels of goals,” Poortvliet says—thinking not only about each person’s achievement, but also about the team as a whole. 

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