Emotions and Goal Pursuit

Emotions are specialized states shaped by natural selection to adjust multiple aspects of the individual in ways that enhance the ability to cope with the challenges that arise in certain situations (Nesse, 1990). These situations, such as attack by a predator, opportunity to mate, loss of a child, or attack by a dominant individual, contain major fitness challenges and have recurred often enough in the course of evolutionary history to have shaped specialized states of response. If the situations that arise in the pursuit of goals are indeed crucial to fitness, we should expect that each of them has shaped a corresponding emotion. Indeed, this seems to be the case. Some of our most powerful emotions fit naturally into a simple table based on whether the goal is positive or negative and whether it is in the future or the past. This basic quadripartite structure is by no means new. Aquinas, following Plato in the Protagoras, recognized four main emotions: hope, fear, happiness, and sadness. As illustrated in Figure 2, these fundamental distinctions can be enhanced by incorporating two additional characteristics of goals (positive versus negative goals, physical versus social goals) and two additional columns to reflect emotions during the pursuit of a goal, the difference between emotions after attainment of a goal, and failure to reach a goal. The result shows how several important emotions are aroused by the specific situations that arise in the course of pursuing a goal. The adaptive challenges characteristic of each of these situations have, I argue, shaped the corresponding emotions to adjust the organism in ways that increase fitness.

An enormous body of work documents the relationship between goal pursuit and affect (Gollwitzer & Moskowitz, 1996). Except for a hiatus during the heyday of behaviorism, goals and their effects and associated affects have been a central concern in social psychology. Behavioral strategies are influenced by the content of goals, their conflicts with other goals, and how they are framed. Several closely related varieties of goals have been defined, including current concerns (Klinger, 1975), personal strivings (Emmons & King, 1988), personal projects (Little, Lecci, & Watkinson, 1992), and life tasks (Cantor, 1994). For a summary, see Emmons (1999). With few exceptions (Buss, 1995; Klinger, 1998), however, this enterprise has proceeded independently from developments in evolutionary biology and behavioral ecology.

On the core topic of interest here, there is considerable consensus that low mood is reliably aroused by persisting in the pursuit of an unreachable goal (Brickman, 1987; Carver & Scheier, 1990; Emmons, 1996; Klinger, 1975; Pyszczynski & Greenberg, 1987). The down-regulation of motivation in this situation is exactly what is called for to avoid expending energ)/ unnecessarily. In most circumstances, it leads to disengagement and turning effort elsewhere. When an organism is committed to a goal, however, and it persists in effort for which the likelihood of reward is increasingly slim, ordinary low mood often seems to escalate into depression (Janoff-Bulman & Brickman, 1982). Therefore, the question of why some individuals tend to persist excessively in the pursuit of unreachable goals is of crucial significance.

Clinical experience suggests that certain kinds of people seem predisposed to get trapped in this situation. Some are unwilling to give up large ambitions. Ever)/one knows of someone who has spent years trying to break into the national music scene or to get into an elite training program. Other people are fearful and cannot give up their current unsatisfactory situation because they fear change. Some


(Positive Goal, Promotion)



During 1 After Success

After Failure



Progress ■♦Flow Obstacle-* Frustration Unreachable ♦ Low mood Uncertain^Con fusion








(Negative Goal, Prevention)



Positive ExpectationHope Negative Expectation ■♦Despair







Figure 2. Situations that arise in goal pursuit, and corresponding emotions.

Figure 2. Situations that arise in goal pursuit, and corresponding emotions.

are emotionally attached and stay attached even when abused. Many people are sensitive to social expectations and their own inner sense of duty. Perhaps the most common and most devastating situation, however, is when a goal that is central to a person's identity and purpose in life increasingly appears unreachable. It may be a marriage, hopes for a beloved child who is doing poorly, career ambitions, or an idiosyn-cratic personal goal. In any of these cases, people who cannot give up a major life goal are likely to become depressed. As Oatley (1992, p. 299) puts it, "Depression... is a crisis in a plan that leaves the person without alternative plans for fulfilling a goal that has been lost."

This position is widely accepted in psychology, based on considerable data (Brunstein, 1993; Brunstein, Dangelmayer, & Schultheiss, 1996; Cantor, 1994; Emmons, 1992; Emmons, 1996; Little et al., 1992; Palys & Little, 1983), but studies looking for the association between impaired goal pursuit and clinical depression have been rare. Preliminary results from our detailed study of life goal pursuit and mood in a community sample of 100 adults suggest that depression is indeed more prevalent in those individuals who are trapped by commitments to goals they can neither reach nor give up, and a high proportion of those who are so trapped are depressed. While the question of causation cannot be answered by such cross-sectional studies, they can help to identify the relative contributions of various difficult life situations to causing depression, and they ma}/ be able to link life-events research even more tightly to the psychology of goal pursuit.

Emotions are gradually shaped into partially overlapping subtypes to deal with different varieties of a situation. This is clear in anxiety disorders where subtypes correspond to different dangers (Marks & Nesse, 1994). The various phobias—fear of heights, public speaking, blood, small animals, and so on—each correspond to a different kind of danger. In sadness and depression, the situation is much less clear, but there are hints that losses of different kinds of resources arouse different kinds of emotions. The most devastating loss is, of course, the death of a loved one; the corresponding emotion is grief. Potential loss of a mate to a competitor arouses jealous}/, and persistence in trying to get a mate's love is a common source of depression. Loss of physical resources arouses sadness, which in some instances may help to prevent further losses. When the loss of such resources makes a previous strategy nonviable, then effort put into the old strategy will be wasted and low mood and depression can arise.

Losses of status and social power are of particular import, as has been emphasized by a group of researchers (Price, Sloman, Gardner, Gilbert, & Rohde, 1994; Price & Sloman, 1987; Sloman & Gilbert, 2000) who study "involuntary yielding." They note the utility of submissive behaviors in many animal species where failure to submit results in recurrent attacks by dominants. Humans are preoccupied with maintaining and improving their social positions and they often try to defend them, even when that is impossible. This is a classic example of being unable to give up striving for an unreachable goal. The loss of status has special significance, however, because inhibition of drives and lowered self-esteem may be especially useful in this circumstance—characteristics that are hard to explain otherwise (Hartung, 1988). It will be interesting and important to determine if low self-esteem and inhibited ambition are more common in depression precipitated by loss of status as compared to loss of other resources.

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