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New Developments in Goal Setting
and Task Performance

Edited by
Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham


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27 Linking Goals and Aging
Experimental and Lifespan Approaches
Robin 1. West and Natalie C. Ebner Department ofPsychology,
University ofFlorida
Erin C. Hastings Department ofNetlrology, University ofFlorida

By nature, human beings are goal-oriented. Goals and goal-related processes motivate,
organize, and direct behavior at all ages (Chapman & Skinner, 1985; Heckhausen, 1999).
Across the lifespan, goals provide the individual with standards and ideal outcomes to
consider in evaluating personal functioning in a variety of different domains (Carver &
Scheier, 1990). Nevertheless, the majority ofwork conducted on goal theory has focused
on educational (Schunk & Zimmerman, 1996) and work (Locke & Latham, 2002) set­
tings, settings that rarely include older adults. In the 1990 book by Locke and Latham
that laid out a theory of goal setting and task performance, for example, there was no
mention of older adults as a special case for study. Since then, scholars have begun to
consider how goals might apply to older adults, particularly in the context of cognition
(especially memory), a life domain that is highly relevant to older individuals. The pur­
pose of this chapter is to review the literature considering how goals may be related to
cognition as people age. In linking goals and aging, this chapter will seek to understand
how cognitive task performance is affected by specific "task goals" (i.e., situational
"desire to do ... " goals) at different ages. However, it will also consider goals in the more
general context of everyday life, to consider ways in which such "life goals," (i.e., con­
'tinuing "desire to be ... " goals) may interact with specific situational task goals in their
impact on cognitive activities across the lifespan.

Situation-Specific Task Goals

Considerable work on cognition has been done in relation to Locke and Latham's goal
setting theory. For instance, goals for reading or subtraction lessons can enhance school
performance (e.g., Schunk, 1990) and goals for decision making or problem solving in
the workplace can enhance job performance (Bandura & Wood, 1989). Almost every
cognitive task situation poses a set of requirements for those who seek to successfully
complete the task. In a very broad sense, one could conceptualize task requirements
("remember the list," "go as fast as you can," "avoid making errors") as goals and con­
sider all cognitive research in a review such as this one. But that would be neither feasible
nor constructive. Instead, this review will focus on two types of studies. First, we con­
sider research in which participants of differing ages were given explicit targets or goals
for their cognitive performance in a controlled laboratory situation. Second, we con­
sider research that examines cognition in the context of more general life goals. In both
cases, the linkage between goals and aging is central.
440 R.L. West, N.C. Ebner, and E.C. Hastings
Before 2000, almost no laboratory work on memory had been done to test goa
theory, and almost no studies on goal theory had been conducted to examine age differ
ences. Yet as we shall see, the results of early work on goals in memory aging often dove
tailed nicely with the dominant findings of goal setting research (Locke & Latham
2(02). Testing goal theory in this new context, studies had two objectives: (l) to confirn
that the basic tenets of goal theory also applied to laboratory memory, and (2) to sho\'
that older adults responded to cognitive goals in the same way as younger adults do
Beginning with the first objective, we now consider the evidence from this experimenta
research that supports these traditional tenets of goal theory:

Goals are motivational

People work harder for more challenging goals

Variations in ability impact goal-related performance gains

Self-efficacy and related belief systems influence goal achievement

Feedback interacts with goal success

Goal commitment moderates the impact of goal setting

Goals direct attention and affect activity selection

Goals lire Motivational

Not only in real life but also in the laboratory context, when there is a cognitive chal­
lenge handed to people, they will typically work to meet that challenge (Locke & Latham,
2002). Across a number of studies on memory, specific goals have raised performance
levels, and individuals with specific goals have shown higher performance than those
without goals. For example, using briefly pt;esented sets of five letters, a self-set goal
raised performance by 17% (Stadtlander & Coyne, 1990). With more meaningful
stimuli-partially categorizable shopping lists--performance showed strong and con­
sistent goal-directed gains across trials in both younger and o;der adults, in some cases
.showing more than 2S% improvement in memory test scores (West, Dark-Freudema~,
& Bagwell, 2(09). In contrast to conditions with no goals, memory gains across time in
goal setting conditions were significant even when lists were increasing in difficulty over
trials (West, Bagwell, & Dark-Freudeman, 2005; West, Thorn, & Bagwell, 2003). The
motivational effect of having specific goals was stronger, and better maintained over
trials, when the same list was used repeatedly for testing. Perhaps both younger and
older participants were then able to easily observe the gains they were making, which
enhanced the motivational impact (e.g., West et al., 2(09).

People Work HlIrder for More Challenging G04I1s

Although this notion was oace viewed as counterintuitive, there is a substantial body of
research showing that indiwiduals will strive to meet even very challenging goals (Locke
& Latham, 2002). A good aample of the positive impact of challenging goals on labora­
tory cognition is a study that directly compared low-challenge and high-challenge
memory goals given to adults of differing ages. Participants were asked to recall shop­
ping lists, beginning with a IS-item list that they studied for one minute. It was assumed,
given the brevity of the list, that most individuals knew how they had performed on that
Linking Goals and Aging: Experimental and Lifespan Approaches 441
first baseline trial, even without feedback. Participants were then assigned randomly to
either a low-challenge (i.e., recallS more items on the list) or a high-challenge (i.e., recall
15 more items on the list) goal for the next trial. The list length of every subsequent trial
was set in relation to the participant's level of performance on the preceding trial. That
is, on each trial they were assigned to recall the shopping items remembered on the pre­
vious trial plus 5 or 15 additional shopping list items, depending on a low- or high­
challenge goal assignment. In this way, the list length systematically increased as the
goals were met, providing more and more challenge, especially in the high-challenge
condition. At the same time, the goals were achievable, because they were tied directly to
individual performance levels. The investigators found improvements from Trial 1 to
Trial 2 for the low-challenge group, and continuing improvements from Trial 2 to 3,
and from Trial 3 to 4, for the high-challenge group. Younger and older individuals in the
goal condition responded with increased performance, regardless of goal type. This
result reflected the greater motivation to persist in cognitive effort for the high-challenge
group, even as the task became increasingly demanding (West et al., 2003).
In the domain of text memory, researchers have compared comprehension goals and
recall goals, considering the latter as more challenging. Adults of all ages were able to allo­
cateadditional attention to that more challenging goal and successfully recall assigned
texts (Stine-Morrow, Milinder, Pullara, & Hennan, 2001). In line with these findings,
individuals instructed to set personal goals will set goals higher if they are performing well,
and will continue to increase memory performance when engaged in these more challeng­
ing goals (West, Welch, & Thorn, 200 1). In addition, high-performing adults will often set
goals that are 10-15% higher, once their initial goal is met (West & Thorn, 2001). These
results again suggest that challenging cognitive goals are effective motivators.

Variations inAbility Impact Goal-Related PerformtJnce Gains

The second objective of the early studies that linked goals"and aging was to show that
goals would have comparable effects on younger and old~r adults, namely, leading to
significant improvements in performance under goal setting conditions (relative to no­
goal conditions), and higher performance gains with more challenging as opposed to
less challenging goals. Individual differences in ability have long been recognized as
important factors in goal achievement: "... If the goals set are not within the ability of
the person to attain, they will not be attained" (Locke & Latham, 1990, p. 223). Studies
on aging provide a unique context for examining the impact of cognitive ability
variations because decades of research have revealed age-related declines in various cog­
nitive abilities (Anderson & Craik, 2000). As one would expect, empirical evidence
indeed shows that age-related cognitive limitations sometimes affect how much gain is
achieved as a function of goal setting.
Over several studies, West and colleagues have established that, compared to younger
adults, older adults are less reliably influenced by goals to improve their test scores (West &
Thorn, 2001; West & Yassuda, 2004). If the demands appear to surpass older adults' skill
levels, they may flounder, withdrawing effort from a challenging goal, resulting in weak
goal-related performance gains (West & Thorn, 2001; West et al., 2001). At the same
time, under relatively ideal conditions, older adults can be successful when striving for
cognitive performance improvements. For instance, older adults can be successful when
442 R.L. West, N.C. Elmer, and E.C. Hastings
task difficulty is set in relation to individual levels of performance (West et al., 2005
2009). Older adults also tend to set their own personal test score goals lower tha~
younger adults, supporting the notion that goal choice is affected by ability (Locke,
Frederick, Lee, & Bobko, 1984; Riediger, Li, & Lindenberger, 2006).
It is also important to consider strategic processing when considering age variations
in ability that could affect goal achievement, as identification and implementation of
effective strategies is often a key factor in goal attainment (Locke & Latham, 1990).
Evidence for age declines in the effectiveness of strategy usage is substantial (e.g.,
Dunlosky, Hertzog, & Powell-Moman, 2005). At the same time, research on goals and
aging has been somewhat mixed with respect to strategy use. West and Thorn (2001),
for example, found that self-set recall goals, combined with performance feedback, had
no impact on categorization as a cognitive strategy during recall of a highly categorizable
shopping list. In a recent study using a more challenging list, individual categorization
predicted goal-related score gains for both younger and older adults. Older adults who
were given experimenter-set performance goals and feedback on their progress toward
those goals used more category clustering than an older control group with no goals and
no feedback (West et al., 2009). Also, greater goal-directed memory improvement Was
evident for individuals who utilized more category grouping strategies.
In the domain of text memory, Stine-Morrow and colleagues (2001) were able to elim­
inate the typical age differences found on laboratory-based memory tasks through goal
manipulation. The researchers found that younger and older adults performed similarly
on both a recall and a comprehension task. The recall task was identified by the authors
as the more difficult of the two tasks, so it is notable that both age groups performed
similarly on this task. The authors concluded that older adults were able to compensate
for age-related declines in informatien processing skills by successfully reallocating atten­
tiona! resources to meet the more challenging recall goal. In a later study, however, age
differences in working memory were shown to limit the effect of goals on performance for
older learners (Stine- Morrow, Shake, Miles, & Noh, 2006a). Clearly, more work is needed
to understand these variations in strategic outcomes with respect to aging.
Varying cognitive abilities are only one of the possible explanations for older adults'
lesser ability to respond effectively to performance goals for cognition. Beliefsystems are
also relevant to goal attainment (Locke & Latham, 1990). The most researched belief
in this respect is self-efficacy.

Self-Effiuu:y and Related BeliefSystems Influence Goal Achievement

Self-efficacy is one's assessment of individual capability in a defined task domain, for
example, the belief that your memory is pretty good most of the time. Not surprisingly,
goals are most motivating when self-efficacy is higher (Maddux, 1995) because those
with higher self-efficacy have an expectation that additional effort will lead to a positive
outcome (Bandura, 1989; Pernn, 1989). There is considerable evidence that such beliefs,
particularly in the domain of cognition, decline over the lifespan (Berry, 1999), and one
might assume that such a change would result in older adults not being motivated by
cognitive goals. However, research shows that older adults are motivated by cognitive
goals and that self-efficacy is an important factor in how goals influence cognitive
performance in older adults (West et a1., 2009).
Linking Goals and Aging: Experimental and Lifespan Approaches 443

For example, levels of memory self-efficacy predicted self-set memory goals, with
younger adults showing higher memory self-efficacy and setting their goals much higher
than older adults (West & Thorn, 2001; West et al., 2(01). It is often the case that
repeated memory testing is associated with declines in memory self-efficacy (Dittmann­
Kohli, Lachman, Kliegl, & Baltes, 1991; West, Dennehy-Basile, & Norris, 1996).
However, those participants who were showing performance gains due to goal setting
(as opposed to no gains) reported no declines in self-efficacy (West & Thorn, 2001) and
sometimes even showed increases in self-efficacy over trials (West et al., 2001, 2003,
2005). Also, those with goals and those receiving positive feedback about goal progress
showed increases in self-efficacy (Miller & West, 2010; West et al., 2005) compared with
those having no goals (West et al., 2003).
Theoretically, self-efficacy is related to performance in a reciprocal fashion (Bandura,
1997). That is, initial levels of self-efficacy should affect initial performance. Subsequent
evaluations ofthat performance, in light of one's beliefs, should raise or lower self-efficacy,
which will in turn affect future perfonnance (Berry, 1999;Valentijn et al., 2(06). Researchers
have examined this reciprocal relationship from both directions. In addition to the studies
above showing that goal condition predicted self-efficacy over trials, Stine-Morrow and
colleagues have shown that, along with working memory, self-efficacy beliefs predicted
significant variance in the differential allocation of attentional resources to meet cognitive
goals (e.g., to read for high comprehension, or to read quickly). Specifically, participants
with high self-efficacy were better than participants with low self-efficacy at adjusting their
reading times to meet their assigned reading goal (Stine-Morrow et al., 2oo6a). In this kind
of test situation, it is likely that an ongoing personal assessment of performance (''I'm
struggling with this reading," "} need to try a different strategy," "I'm not very good at
this"), related to beliefs about abilities, as well as explicit experimenter feedback, informs
subsequent on-task behavior such as the setting of goals, the degree of invested effort, the
activation of attention, and the employment of strategies (Stine-Morrow, Miller, &
Hertiog, 2006b). In this way, belief systems may mediate goal se\.ting effects. In line with.
this notion, individuals who reported a high degree of control over their memory scores
also selected higher goals for themselves (West et al., 2001), and improved their memory
scores over trials with or without goals (West & Yassuda, 2(04). In contrast, when those
reporting low control had no goal, they showed no improvement in scores over trials, and
only showed perfonnance gains when given a goal (West & Yassuda. 2(04).

FeeJlNu:k Interacts with Goal SUC€ess

Given the beliefs of older adults, and in particular, the degree to which they doubt their
own capability to perform well and to control cognitive performance outcomes, it is not
surprising that feedback would influence goal progress for older adults even more so
than for younger adults. There are a number of ways for participants in cognitive studies
to obtain feedback: (1) with relatively easy tasks and/or obvious performance indicators,
adults can directly observe their own score gains (internal feedback), (2) experimenters
can provide neutral or objective feedback by pointing out scores in relation to self-set or
experimenter-set goals, (3) experimenters can provide encouraging or positive feedback
("that's good," "you are improving") based on performance, and (4) false feedback
("bogus feedback") can be utilized, which might be negative or positive.
444 R.L West, N.c. Ebner, and E.C. HQ$tings
With younger adults, evidence revealed that goals and feedback together led to better
performance than goals alone (e.g., Bandura & Cervone, 1983), that memory perfor­
mance improved under most goals and goals-feedback conditions (West et al., 20(9),
and that feedback showing goal achievement encouraged younger individuals to set
even more challenging goals for themselves (West & Thorn, 2001). Younger adults
appear to have little difficulty improving memory scores over trials, once motivated to
do so, and thus they are likely to receive positive feedback. Studies of false feedback
have shown that positive feedback was more motivating than negative feedback
(e.g., Thompson & Perlini, 1998). However, older adults, who experience more memory
difficulties, may not always obtain positive feedback in a goals-feedback condition.
Thus, it is not surprising that a critical variable affecting goal progress for older learners
appears to be the type of feedback.
Performance feedback, by itself, shows mixed and partly counterintuitive effects in
aging research, in that older adults often do not benefit from feedback (Ellis, Palmer, &
Reeves, 1988; Fristoe, Salthouse, & Woodard, 1997; Rebok & Balcerak, 1989).
Interestingly, in situations where performance gains were possible, older adults often
performed better with goals alone, rather than goals plus feedback (cf. West et al., 2001,
2005). Older adults app~ed to become discouraged by objective or neutral feedback
that did not highlight performance gains (West & Thorn, 2001; West et al., 2001, 2005).
For example, in one study, two-thirds of the older participants did not even gain
one point from baseline to final trial in a goals-feedback condition, and they performed
more poorly in the goals-feedback condition than in the control condition (West
et al., 2(01). In contrast, with a relatively simple task (recalling five letters), for which
feedback was mostly positive, goals-feedback conditions showed the expected motiva­
tional effects for older adults (Stadtlander & Coyne, 1990). This was also found in a
task situation in which progreSiive gains were easily observed by the participants (West
et al., 2005). Taken together, these studies provided evidence that objective or negative
feedback can be discouraging, resulting in disengagement by older adults. In -contrast,
positive feedback that emphasizes performance gains as a result of goal setting can
lead to higher self-set goals (West & Thorn, 2001; West et al., 2001), greater perfor­
mance gain (West & Thorn, 2001; West et al., 2001, 2005, 2009), and increased use of
strategic categorization (West & Thorn, 2001; West et al., 2009) for both younger and
older adults.

Goal Commitment Mo4nwtes the Impa£t of GDG1 Setting

In research on aging and goal setting, relatively little is known about goal commitment
effects on cognitive tasks. Locke and Latham (1990) reported that goal commitment is
often quite high, with minimal variation. In addition, commitment shows a relationship
to performance only when task circumstances lead to more variability in goal commit­
ment. In the only published report on age-related goal commitment, this variation was
achieved by manipulating feedback for assigned goals. The task was constructed so that
goals were not attainable but that each individual would show at least minor score gains
on each trial. After scores were provided for each trial, the goal for the next trial was
given, and a "tell and sell" approach (Latham, Erez, & Locke, 1988) was used for the
positive feedback condition, by saying phrases such as You are improving, Go for it!
~1 ..
Linking Goals and Aging: Experimental and Lifespan Approaches 445

In the objective feedback condition, only the scores were provided. Both age groups
showed the highest performance and greatest goal commitment in the positive feedback
condition (West et al., 2oo5). Interestingly, older adults showed significantly higher goal
commitment than younger adults, and this effect was primarily due to older adults' very
high commitment scores in the positive fee4back condition. (As will be shown below,
older adults are more sensitive to the valence of the feedback than younger adults.)
Although reliable multi-item scales of goal commitment have not typically been
administered in aging studies, investigators have often asked participants, at the conclu­
sion of a session, about degree of effort and willingness to work more on the task. Such
items may represent commitment. In the study described above, the work more measure
was significantly higher in the positive feedback condition. It was also higher for older
than younger adults, mirroring the findings for performance and the more extensive
goal commitment scale (West et al., 2005; also see West et al., 2003). In a later study,
using regression to predict performance after three goal trials, subjective effort (but not
the work more item) was a significant predictor of gain scores, along with age and goal
condition (West et al., 2009). More laboratory work on this issue would definitely be
Although there is relatively little laboratory work on goal commitment, the research
on life goals is clearly driven by the issue of commitment (e.g., What life goals are people
invested in achieving? Do people vary in their commitment to particular life goals as age
changes occur?) and how it affects goal choice and activity selection.

Goals Direct Attention and Affect Activity Sel«Iion

Goals may influence the focus of cognitive operations (Chartrand & Bargh, 1996), with
resource allocation being driven by goal or task priorities (Hess, 2005; Miller & Gagne,
2005; Stine-Morrow et al., 2006b). Further, "... when cognitive resources (e.g., attention)
are allocated to one task, they must, in part, be withdrawn from other tasks." (Locke &
Latham, 1990, p. 53). For instance, in text-based processing, readers seek to minimize the
discrepancy between what is currently known (the "input function") and the standard
established by the reader for adequate comprehension (the "reference value"). The level
of the reference value may differ from person to person because it is based on each read­
er's motivations and goals (Stine-Morrow et al., 2006b). As a result, the amount of effort
allocated to reducing the discrepancy (i.e., learning the information) should differ
depending on the reader's standard. Stine-Morrow and colleagues (200 1) found that both
younger and older adults adjusted study time based on task goals such that they spent
more time attending to a text when the goal was to recall the text later than when the goal
was to comprehend it. Stine-Morrow and colleagues (2006a) have also shown that
younger adults, more so than older adults, adjusted their cognitive behavior while reading
text in line with experimenter-set goals: when asked to read with the goal of accuracy, they
took more time to really learn the material, but when asked to read with the goal of effi­
ciency (i.e., finishing the task quickly), they took less time to learn the information.
Up to now, our focus has been to establish that goals given to younger and older adults
in a cognitive laboratory context confirm many established goal theory principles. We have
also noted that age differences in memory skiQs, beliefs, and reactions to feedback some­
times lead to differential outcomes for y0UQ8er and older adults in goal setting research.
446 R.L. West, N.e. Ebner, and E.e. Hastings
To draw a more complete picture of how goals and their effects on performance mayor
may not change with age, it is necessary to consider broader, everyday contexts in which
self-selected goals may affect cognition. There are several models designed to under­
stand how life goals, that is the "desire to be" goals, might change over the lifespan.
These approaches largely focus on how life goals are framed and modified to help indi­
viduals, and in particular aging individuals, manage and cope with changes in cognitive
skills and other losses in capability that accompany the aging process. These models
focus on selection and pursuit of self-selected goals and the way in which these personal
goals guide behavior, outside as well as in the laboratory. As we shall see, this work also
shows that goals direct attention and affect the activities that people choose to do, but
this represents, in the case of life goals, a much broader influence on behavior than is
true for those specific goals that people work to achieve in laboratory contexts.

General Life Goals

A useful framework for understanding the impact of goals on everyday functioning is to
consider goals in a lifespan developmental context (Ebner & Freund, 2007; Freund &
Riediger, 2(03). Lifespan psychology (Baltes, 1997) describes development as a lifelong
process of flexible, individual adaptation to changes in opportunities and constraints on
social, biological, and psychological levels (Baltes, Lindenberger, & Staudinger, 2005;
Boesch, 1991; Brandtstadter & Lerner, 1999; Freund & Baltes, 2000). From this perspec­
tive, goals that are challenging, but attainable, represent important self-regulatory pro­
cesses positively related to well-being (Omodei & Wearing, 1990; Sheldon & Elliot,
1999) and conducive to successful aging (Brandatadter & Renner, 1990; Freund &
Baltes, 2(00).
The self-regulatory theories that focus on goal-related processes in development con­
verge on the assumption of a dynamic person-<:ontext interaction (see Boerner & JopP,
2007; Riediger & Ebner, 2(07). They largdy agree that goal-related resources change
over the lifespan, and become more limited in old age, and that successful development
requires suitable mechanisms for allocation of these limited resources.
Table 27.1 lists three prominent goal-related theories on development and aging: the
model of Selection, Optimization, and Compensation (SOC; e.g., Baltes, 1997; Baltes &
Baltes, 1990; Baltes, Freund, & Li, 2005), the model of Optimization in Primary and
Secondary Control (OPS; Heckhausen, 1997, 1999; Heckhausen & Schulz, 1995), and
Socioemotional Selectivity Theory (SST; Carstensen, Gross, & Fung, 1997; Carstensen,
Isaacowitz, &- Charles, 1999). Each of these models proposes specific goal-related strate­
gies as briefly summarized in Table 27.1. Evidence suggests an age-related change in the
use and benefit of these goal-related strategies. For example, self-report studies on SOC
confirm that the three strategies of selection, optimization, and compensation are rep­
resented in younger and older adults' knowledge about what is pragmatic and beneficial
for goal pursuit in everyday life (Freund & Baltes, 2oo2a). Middle-aged adults reported
higher use of all three strategies than younger and older adults, and endorsement of
these strategies was related to global and domain-specific well-being and goal success
(Freund & Baltes, 2oo2b; see also Wiese, Freund, & Baltes, 2002). Focusing on age dif­
ferences in the process of selection, Riediger, Freund, and Baltes (2005) found that older,
compared with younger, adults selected more coherent, nonconflicting goals and that
Linking Goals and Aging: Experimental and Life~n Approaches 447

Table 27.1 Three Prominent Goal-Related Theories on Development and Aging:

Proposed Goal-Related Strategies and Examples
Theory Goal-related strategy Example
Model ofselection, Elective selection: Developing and Play the piano as a musical
optimization. and choosing a subset of goals out of instrument
compensation multiple options
Loss-based selection: Adapting Focus on the piano and quit
existing or developing new goals playing the guitar
to fit losses in resources
Optimization: Adapting means for Increase hours ofpracticing
achieving desired outcomes and the piano
new skills
Compensation: Counteracting losses Play simple pieces on the piano
by changing goal-relevant means when difficult ones become
to maintain a given goal unmanagUlble
Model ofoptimization Selective primary control: Actions invest more time in learning
in primary and that are directly aimed at goal how to program to improve
secondary control achievement through the one's analysis skills
focused investment of internal
Compensatory primary control: Use Attend a programming class to
of external resources for goal improve one's analysis skills
achievement, typically when
internal resources are depleted
Selective secondary control: Increased Further emphasize the role of
personal commitment to a selected knowing how to program for
goal improving one's analysis skills
Compensatory secondary control: Decide that knowledge about
Cognitive reframing of goals programming is not useful for
when goals become unachievable improving one's analysis skills
Socioemotional Knowledge<lcquisition: Directing Learn the cultural norms of
selectivity theory goals toward learning new a foreign country
information and preparing for
the future
Emotion regulation: Directing Discuss difficult life decisions
goals toward the satisfaction with a close friend
of emotional needs

inter-goal coherence was associated with greater goal success. In addition, older adults
considered a more restricted range of goals than did younger adults (Riediger & Freund,
2006; see also Staudinger, Freund, Linden, & Mus, 1999), possibly due to increased
resource limitations (Baltes & Smith, 2003; FreWld & Riediger, 2001). Arguing along
similar lines, Ebner, Freund, and Baltes (2006; see also Ebner, Riediger, & Lindenberger,
2009; Freund, 2006; Freund & Ebner, 2005) showed that younger adults adopted, and
profited more from, goals that aimed at increasing levels of performance, whereas older
adults were more motivated to pursue goals geared toward compensation of losses and
maintenance of levels of functioning.
448 R.L. West, N.C Ebner, and E.C Hastings

Similarly, evidence related to the OPS model suggests that maximization of primary
control characterizes the most adaptive functioning for most adults, but that this
control strategy becomes particularly difficult in older ages when declines in goal­
relevant resources make the achievement of goals increasingly difficult (Schulz, 1986).
As a consequence, with advancing age and when opportunities for goal attainment are
unfavorable, compensatory control strategies become more prevalent and adaptive
(Wrosch & Heckhausen, 1999; also see Brandtstadter & Wentura, 1995; Rothermund &
Brandtstiidter, 2003).
SST, finally, has proved particularly useful in predicting age differences in emotion,
motivation, and cognition (see Carstensen & Mikels. 2005; Mather & Carstensen. 200S,
for overviews). Due to a greater focus on the present and a more limited future time
perspective (Fingerman & Perlmutter, 1995; Lang & Carstensen, 2002), older adults
prefer goals associated with positive emotional experiences over goals targeted at acqui­
sition of new information (see also Table 27.1). This shift reflects older adults' increased
motivation for gratifying experiences "in the moment" rather than maximization of
future rewards (Carstensen, 20(6) and was shown to be accompanied by a selective
engagement in smaller but more emotionally meaningful social networks (Carstensen
et al., 1999; see also Fung, Carstensen, & Lutz, 1999).

Life Goals. Cognition. aJUl Aging

Clearly, there is substantial evidence that life goals show systematic shifts in aging. The
important issue to consider next is whether and how those life goal shifts impact cogni­
tion. Freund (2006), for instance, used a sensorimotor task. In one condition ("optimi­
zation") participants were instructed to try to gat as good as possible at the task. and in the
other condition ("compensation") participants were instructed to try to match their best
performance after being confronted with a "loss" (the task was manipulated to be more
challenging). In line with SOC theory, both age groups showed goal pursuit behavior
that matched expected age-associated shifts in motivational orientation: the older adult
group spent more time persisting in the compensation condition, whereas the younger
adult group spent more time persisting in the optimization condition.
Other work has used dual-task paradigms to examine whether and how older adults
prioritize compensatory eoa1s over goals related to task improvement (Kemper, Herman, &
Lian, 2003; Krampe, Rapp. Bondar, & Baltes, 2003; Li, Lindenberger. Freund, & Baltes,
2001; Lindenberger. Marsiske & Baltes. 2000; Rapp, Krampe, & Baltes. 2006). Dual-task
situations are characterized by the necessity to manage two gOals simultaneously.
Scholars refer to the "cost" associated with adding a second goal. because it reduces the
resources available for meeting one's first goal. Two notable studies have focused on
simultaneous goals-to walk and to remember (Li et aI., 2001; Lindenberger et a1..
2000). These studies suggested that older adults tend to direct their goal-related resources
to those domains of functioning that have high priority for their survival, such as walk­
ing carefully to avoid falls. Lindenberger and colleagues (2000) found that, as age
increased, participants showed greater decreases in memory performance when walking
as opposed to sitting or standing. In a subsequent study by Li and colleagues (2001),
older adults showed greater costs than younger adults when performing both a cognitive
and a memory behavior concurrently. Because the greater cost occurred for memory,
Linking Goals and Aging: Experimental and Lifespan Approaches 449
it could be surmised that older adults prioritized walking performance over memory
performance. At the same time, older adults showed more compensatory strategies for
walking (i.e., using a handrail) to keep their balance while maintaining memory perfor­
mance. Younger adults, in contrast, showed more compensatory strategies (i.e., slowing
down the speed ofpresentation for to-be-remembered words) in the domain of memory.
Taken together, these studies examining simultaneous walking and recall suggested that
older adults compensated for declining control over postural stability by shifting atten­
tional resources from memory to walking (Li et al., 2001; Lindenberger et aI., 2000).
Another life goal shift that has been shown to affect cognition is an increased
tendency to focus on emotion regulation goals with advancing age, as postulated by SST.
As outlined above, the theory suggests that older adults respond to a decreased percep­
tion of time left to live by maximizing social and emotional well-being within this lim­
ited future time frame (see Carstensen, Fung, &: Charles, 2003). Mather and Knight
(2005) found evidence that this change in life goals could affect older adults when faced
with a memory task. The researchers showed participants a slideshow of pictures com­
prising positive, negative, and neutral images. In line with the theory, older adults
recalled proportionally more positive images than younger adults, and younger adults
recalled proportionally more negative images. Interestingly, this effect was only found
for older adults with high scores on cognitive control measures, and disappeared when
older adults were given a simultaneous task that required them to divide their attention
(but see Allard & Isaacowitz, 2008).
Some scholars have argued that age differences in memory may be partly (not com­
pletely) explained by the fact that most studies comparing younger and older adults'
memory do not control for individual differences in goals and motivation to learn the
material. However, it is likely that such goals do influence the effort allocated by the
learner (Adams, Smith, Pasupathi, & Vitolo, 2002; Hess, 2005). In line with this notion,
memory for emotional as opposed to non-emotional information was relatively greater
in older as compared to younger adults (Carstensen & Turk-Charles, 1994). In other
research on the impact ofgoals on task effort, younger and older women encodec:\ a story
under two different conditions: to retell the story to a young child or to an experimenter
(Adams et al., 2(02). In the latter condition, younger women outperformed older women
in the amount of material recalled. However, this age difference was eliminated when
retelling the story to a child. The results were interpreted as evidence that life goals (spe­
cifically, the prioritization of social well-being) played a role in memory performance.
SST proposes that older adults prioritize emotion regulation over information
acquisition (Carstensen, 2006). This shift in prioritization may explain why older
adult readers allocate more attentional resources to text related to social and emotional
motives than they do to factual ten (Stine-Morrow et al., 2006b). In the problem­
solving domain, Blanchard-Fields, Mienaltowski, and Seay (2007) examined how
younger and older adults approached interpersonal everyday problems (complications
associated with other people) versus instl'UDWJtal problems (trying to achieve a desired
task outcome). They found that older adults reported using more emotion-focused
strategies to deal with interpersonal problcDJI and more problem-focused strategies to
deal with instrumental problems. In contrast, younger adults used similar amounts of
problem-focused strategies regardless of the problem type, showing a reduced proclivity
to consider emotion-focused problem solutions (Blanchard-Fields et al.) 2007).
450 R.L. West, N.G. Ebner, and E.G. Hastings

These studies represent a variety of experimental contexts in which investigators have

examined the impact of broader life goals on more specific on-task behavior. Together
these findings suggest that older adults allocate cognitive resources toward tasks that are
in line with their life goals, namely, the goal of maximizing social and emotional well­
being (see also Carstensen &: Mikels, 2005; Mather & Carstensen, 2005, for overviews),
and the goal of optimizing control and task success in the face of dual task requirements
or resource losses (Freund, 2006; Lindenberger et aL, 2000; Rapp et aL, 2006). However,
the extant research is still quite limited in its scope, and much more could be done to
link on-task information processing to age-related variations in life goals.

Future Directions
To advance our understanding of the impact of goals on cognition across the adult lifes­
pan, more work is needed, both to identify underlying mechanisms for goal responsive­
ness (e.g., declines in strategy effectiveness, changes in neural networks) and to expand
our investigations into different domains of function. The following section discusses
some promising future directions.

New Experimental Contexts for Linking Goals and Aging

To date. research on goals and aging has focused primarily on list memory and text
recall, with very little exploration of alternative domains of cognition. It would be fruit­
ful, for example, to increase investigation into problem solving, perceptual speed, rea­
soning, and decision making. and to gain a broader understanding of the processing
trade-offs that are implemented to emphasize one task goal and de-emphasize another.
Even within the domain of memory, there is much more to be learned, including how
goal setting might affect memory for faces, names, numbers, or prospective memory.
Using a broader range of cognitive tasks, it would be interesting to continue to explore
emotion-focused processing and compensatory processing. To shed further light on the
underlying processes governing the link between goals and performance in younger and
older adults, future studies will also need to integrate concepts such as goal-related
mindsets and implementation intentions (see Gollwitzer & Oettingen, 2011). This will,
for example, clarify whether the beneficial effect of goal setting is mediated by increases
in concreteness of the situation, the strategies used, and or the task requirements.
More importantly, a number of tenets of goal setting theory have not yet been
explored fully in aging. For instance, we still know relatively little about the best way to
time goals (i.e., immediate versus longer-term such as over an hour, a day, or a week), so
that adults of all ages can achieve beneficial effects of goals on performance, and there are
only a couple of studies addressing varying levels ofgoal difficulty. There are few system­
atic studies of goal-directed changes in persistence with adults of different ages on cogni­
tive tasks (but see Freund, 2006), and we know very little about goal commitment.
We also have onlya few studies of how goal setting affects strategic processing, resulting
in many unresolved questions. For example, what are the characteristics of the strategic
changes that people of varying ages implement to attain their cognitive goals?
Is more effort applied to known, as opposed to novel, strategies, and how is this different
for younger and older adults? Do goals lead to an increased investment of resources in
Linking Goals and Aging: Experimental and Lifespan Approaches 451
service of applying multiple strategies rather than just one or two? And are strategic
changes comparable for younger and older adults when faced with goal challenges?
These and other questions need to be addressed in future research to gain a more com­
plete picture of the mechanisms driving goal-directed changes in cognition across the
adult lifespan.

Linking Goals and Aging for Achievement Goal Orimtlltion

Another broad framework for thinking about goals, achievement goal orientation, may
be an area for interesting future aging research. According to Dweck (1986), people may
adopt one of two types of goals when confronted with a task: learning goals or perfor­
mance goals. Learning goals focus on the development of competence and progress,
whereas performance goals focus on external evaluations of ability (e.g., test scores or
grades). In younger samples, learning goals have generally been linked with good perfor­
mance, and performance goals have been linked with poorer performance in the
achievement goal literature (Button, Mathieu, & Zajac, 1996;· Elliott & Dweck, 1988;
Utman, 1997).
From a goal theory perspective, the term performance goals takes on a different mean­
ing, to refer to meeting a particular criterion of achievement on a certain task. From this
perspective (as discussed by Seijtsand colleagues in Chapter 13), learning goals are most
important when tasks are new and complex. When developing a new skill, goals of
expanding knowledge are crucial (learning goals), but when a skill is already mastered,
goals of achieving a certain level of attainment (performance goals) may be just as moti­
vating, particularly in academic settings (also see Morisano & Locke, in press). Thus,
once an individual has gained a certain level of mastery, the person may be motivated by
continually striving to meet a higher level of achievement. None of these findings, how­
ever, have been confirmed with older adults (Hastings, 2011; Hastings & West, 2011).
Learning and performance goals have also been considered as general achievement
goal orientations that may be somewhat trait-like (Button et al., 1996). In a general cog­
nitive task context, participants' mindset is probably focused either on personal improve­
ment and growth (essentially, adopting a learning goal orientation) or on earning
positive appraisals from others (a performance goal orientation). Elliott and Lachman
(1989) hypothesized that older adults may be at risk for adopting a performance goal
mindset, due to concerns about being perceived as "senile" or experiencing dementia.
When tested empirically, however, older adults were more likely than younger adults to
focus on process goals-similar to learning goals. In contrast, younger adults were more
likely to focus on outcome goals-similar to performance goals (Freund, Hennecke, &
Riediger, 2010). Further complicating hypothesized relationships between achievement
goal orientation and age, questionnaire measures'of these two types of goals showed no
relationship between age and goal orientation (Hastings, 2011; Hastings & West, 2011).
Clearly, associations between achievement goal orientation and age need further study.
More broadly, it would be interesting to examine how adults of all ages behave when
disposed to view cognitive activities through a learning goal lens or a performance goal
lens. As a trait-like disposition, goal orientation could have a general impact on cognition,
affecting the interpretation of occasional failures, confidence for success, strategy
use and, ultimately, performance. For instance, the impact of goal orientation, as a
452 R.L. West, N.c. Ebner, and E.C. Hastings
disposition, was examined across age in a recent study. The positive impact of learning
goals and negative impact of performance goals on recall were confirmed in adults of all
ages (Hastings & West, 2011). However, these effects occurred indirectly, via their rela­
tionship to memory self-efficacy. This mediating effect of self-efficacy, as well as other
self-regulatory variables, has also been supported by Seijts and colleagues (see Chapter 13).
More work is needed to explore how varying goal orientations might be related to other
beliefs and to cognitive outcomes on a range of tasks.

Exploration ofMechanisms Linking GOIlIs lind Aging

Two promising avenues for research would consider possible mechanisms that may
underlie goal-related changes in cognition, including attentional processes and motiva­
tional processes. Eye-tracking constitutes a direct measure of attention that might
have heuristic value in studies of attentional mechanisms. To date, no study has explored
how younger and older adults' visual attention may change as a function of age­
associated shifts in goals, and how this may be linked to (i.e., benefit or hinder) subse­
.quent task performance. However, one recent eye-tracking study examined the effects of
visual attention on mood regulation in young and older adults (Isaacowitz, Toner,
Goren, & Wilson, 2008) and found that older, but not younger, adults' looking patterns
helped to regulate mood. Even though this study did not examine attention and goals,
it nicely demonstrated age differences in the relation between attention and mood.
Thus, the eye-tracking approach offers a promising starting point for research on the
attentional processes underlying the link between goals and behavior in younger and
older adults.
Studies of brain activity in relation to motivational processes may also increase our
understanding of underlying mechanisms for the impact of goals on cognition across
the adult lifespan. For example, a recent study by Mitchell, Raye, Ebner, Tubridy,
Frankel, and Johnson (2009) suggested that younger and older adults focus on different
information when thinking about goals geared toward optimization versus goals focused
on compensation. These differences in the content of goal-related thought are reflected
in differences in brain activity in the medial cortex, a brain region associated with self­
and motivationally relevant thinking (for reviews, see Cavanna & Trimble, 2006;
Northoff et al., 2006; Ochsner et al.• 2(05). In particular, using functional magnetic
resonance imaging, younger and older adults' brain activity was measured while think­
ing about personally relevant agendas related to optimization versus compensation.
In younger adults, an area of the anterior medial cortex was more active when thinking
about optimization, whereas an area of the posterior medial cortex was more active
during reflection about compensation (see also Johnson et al., 2006). However, this
double dissociation did not hold for older adults. Interestingly, this pattern of brain
activation was in line with behavioral evidence showing that even though older adults
have a relatively greater orientation toward, and are more motivated by, compensation
than optimization goals, they differentiate less between these two types of goals than
younger adults (Ebneret al., 2006; Lockwood, Chasteen,. & Wong, 2005). It would be
interesting to extend this finding in neural studies of optimization versus compensation
goals in relatio,n to cognitive performance.
Linking Goals and Aging: Experimental and Lifespan Approaches 453

Goals and goal-related processes have been shown to motivate behavior across adult­
hood both in terms of isolated cognitive tasks (such as word list and text memory) and
general life desires (such as the pursuit of positive emotional experiences). In light of
the research evidence outlined here, we now revisit the tenets of goal theory presented
earlier in this chapter. Goal theory is clearly relevant in aging, both for cognitive tasks as
well as life goals. Specifically, it has been shown that goals are motivational, in that they
impact task performance and memory behavior for older adults similar to younger
adults, and that both age groups seem to work harder for more challenging cognitive
goals. Ability impacts goal-directed performance gains, with older adults showing more
variation than younger adults in response to task goals both in the lab and in life, most
likely due to their cognitive limitations. The role of ability is also evident in older adults'
increased likelihood to engage in compensatory behavior. Moreover, self-efficacy and
related beliefs have been shown to affect goal achievement and behavior across adult­
hood; to some extent, goal setting even seems to boost self-efficacy and buffer the nega­
tive effects of lower confidence levels fOWld in older adults. Feedback also appears to
influence goal achievement at all ages, but its effects can be complicated by whether the
feedback is positive or negative (which is influenced partly by ability). Negative feedback
may have more deleterious effects on cognition for older adults. Finally, as outlined in
theories of general life goals (i.e., SOC, OPS, and SST), goals direct behavior and activity
selection toward particular domains and taslts-.,-foT example, emotionally satisfying
experiences rather than information-gathering experiences in late life-whether the
goals are experimentally assigned or personally meaningful. Goals are clearly relevant at
all ages, with a demonstrated impact on cognition across the lifespan. Research linking
goals and aging is relatively new and offers an exciting new frontier for extending existing
research on goal theory.

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