Goal-Setting Theory

Goal setting is a psychological theory created by Edwin Locke in the 1960s and is based on his research into motivations for people's behavior and the impetus that enables them to achieve goals.

Goal setting is common in educational, psychological, and workplace settings where people are encouraged to set SMART goals, meaning goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, reasonable, and timely. Goals represent a future point at which the desire to improve or transform a current situation through internal and/or external motivations will manifest in change and reward. Studies have shown that ambitious and well-defined goals lead to higher performance when key moderators are conducive. Those moderators are positive feedback, commitment to the goal, its complexity, and restrictions of the present situation (for example, lack of resources or a conflicting goal).

Edwin Locke (1938–) and Gary Latham extensively studied goal setting over a period of decades, culminating in their 1990 publication A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance. This work examined in detail the idea that goals affect action and laid out five essential principles for setting goals: clarity, level of challenge, commitment, feedback, and task complexity. In 2006 Locke and Latham looked at advances in goal-setting theory since the theory first appeared in the 1960s. One interesting development was the idea that failure to achieve goals in one area of life (such as in personal life) can be compensated for by success in another realm (such as work). Other research that Locke and Latham examined expanded on the importance of having specific goals, by showing that focusing only on long term, vague goals led to a type of tunnel vision and that better results occurred when the focus was on attaining learning outcomes as opposed to distant performance goals. This is especially relevant for students but was also investigated in sports and work-based team goal setting scenarios. While goal setting can be an effective way of motivating a team of people, groups can add extra difficulty because individuals with their own personal objectives and tactics are coming together.

See also Applied psychology ; Educational psychology ; Motivation ; Psychotherapy ; Sports psychology .



Locke, Edwin A., and Gary P. Latham. New Developments in Goal Setting and Task Performance. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Locke, Edwin A., and Gary P. Latham. A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1990.


Locke, Edwin A., and Gary P. Latham.“New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 15, no. 5 (2006): 265–68.


University of Washington. “Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation: A 35Year Odyssey.” http://faculty.washington.edu/janegf/goalsetting.html (accessed July 15, 2015).


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