The goals that human beings possess are arranged in hierarchy, such that higher order goals are more abstract than lower order goals (Lord & Levy, 1994). For instance, a person may have a goal to become an educated person. In order to achieve this goal, they may have a goal to get a college degree. In order to obtain a college degree, they may have the goal to complete a college application, and to complete a college application they may have the goal of reach for a pen. Behavior may also be directed from the bottom up, meaning that lower order goals may briefly shift attention (Lord & Levy, 1994). For instance, if one smells smoke while reaching for a pen, their new goal may be to investigate the smell of smoke.
Individuals continuously monitor whether goals have been achieved through a process called self-regulation (Austin & Vancouver, 1996). Motivation theories attempt to address how individuals react when a discrepancy is perceived between one's goals and the current state of the environment. Several common theories of motivation involve goal directed behavior. The most common of these theories are Goal Setting Theory (GST; Locke & Latham, 1990; 2002), a group of theories referred to as "control theories" (e.g., Carver & Scheier, 1998; Powers, 1973; 1991),and Social Cognitive Theory (SCT; Bandura, 1986; 1997). GST has accumulated a great deal of empirical evidence over the past 35 years (Locke & Latham, 2002). Essentially, individuals exert more effort and thus achieve higher levels of performance on a tasks when goals are difficult and specific. However, this is only the case when individuals are committed to the goal, believe they can accomplish the goal, and have the requisite skills (Locke & Latham, 2002). Control theories are centered around reduction of goal/environment discrepancies. According to control theories, when an individual perceives a discrepancy between the current state some action is taken to reduce the discrepency. In order to reduce a goal/environment disparity, individuals may change their behavior (e.g., exert more effort) or change their goal (Carver & Scheier, 1998). SCT also predicts that individuals will seek to reduce discrepancies between goals and the state of the environment; however, SCT predicts that individuals will set new and more difficult goals when goal/environment discrepancies have be eliminated (Bandura, 1986, 1997; Bandura & Locke, 2003). This goal/enviroment discrepancy production is expected to occur only when individuals believe that they will be able to accomplish their goals in the future, a construct known as self-efficacy (Bandura, 1986, 1997).
An individual's goal orientation describes the goals that they choose and the methods used to pursue those goals (DeShon & Gillespie, 2005). Dweck (1986) noticed that school children seemed to display two distinct patterns of goal oriented behavior. While some children sought tasks that were challenging that they could learn from, other children sought out tasks that were easier, allowing them to either demonstrate their abilities or avoid appearing incompetent. Dweck (1986) and others (e.g., Ames & Archer, 1988; Dweck & Leggett, 1988) found that children with an incremental theory of intelligence, that is, children who believed that intelligence was malleable and could be improved through effort, tended to be mastery oriented, seeking challenging assignments. Conversely, children with an entity theory of intelligence (believing that intelligence was fixed and not subject to change) tended to be performance oriented, choosing tasks where they could demonstrate their abilities. In the subsequent years since Dweck's papers, goal orientation has become an important motivational construct, not only in the educational literature but in the industrial/organizational psychology literature as well. However, the structure of the construct has not been well defined, with some models containing as few as 1 factor and others containing as many as 6 (DeShon & Gillespie, 2005). One of the most common conceptualizations of goal orientation is the three factor model (e.g., VandeWalle, 1997). That is, individuals can be described in terms of goal orientation based on three factors: mastery, performance-approach, and performance-avoid. Individuals with a mastery goal orientation seek challenging tasks and value learning. Highly performance-approach oriented individuals seek tasks that allow them to demonstrate the skills they already possess, and highly performance-avoidant tend to avoid tasks where they may fail and thus appear incompetent.