Social Goals

Updated on Dec 23, 2009

Social goals are increasingly being appreciated as important to understanding engagement and achievement in school. In general, social goals refer to what students are focused on and trying to accomplish with their peers. Three main approaches have been used to investigate students' social goals in relation to academic adjustment: a content approach, an achievement goal approach, and a hybrid social-academic goal approach.


First, social goals have been conceptualized as how often students focus on or try to do various things with their peers (e.g., have fun, follow rules). This approach is often referred to as a goal content approach and assumes students strive for certain outcomes that direct their behavior (Anderman & Anderman, 1999; Ford, 1992; Jarvinan & Nicholls, 1996). Some of the main social goals that have been identified within this approach are: responsibility goals, prosocial and intimacy goals, popularity goals, and dominance goals. Responsibility goals refer to a focus on conforming to the social and moral rules, meeting obligations, and keeping commitments. Prosocial goals refer to forming friendships as well as helping, sharing, and cooperating with peers. Intimacy goals are similar to prosocial goals but focus more specifically on establishing intimate friendships characterized by mutual support and disclosure of thoughts and feelings. Popularity goals refer to a focus on establishing high social status characterized by visibility and prestige within the larger peer group at school. Dominance goals refer to a focus on having power over peers characterized by getting peers to comply with one's wishes and instilling fear in peers.

Second, social goals have been conceptualized as distinct orientations toward social competence and linked to adjustment in the classroom (an achievement goal approach, encompassing development and demonstration goals; Erdley, Cain, Loomis, Dumas-Hines & Dweck, 1997; Host, Finney, & Barron, 2007; Ryan & Shim, in press). A social development goal concerns a focus on developing social competence with peers. The focus is on learning new material and skills, growth, and improvement. Success would be judged by whether one is improving social skills, deepening the quality of relationships, or developing one's social life in general. A social demonstration-approach goal concerns a focus on demonstrating social competence and gaining from peers positive judgments that one is socially desirable. A social demonstration-avoid goal concerns a focus on demonstrating that one does not lack social competence. The focus is on avoiding doing something that would incur negative judgments from peers and indicate social unde-sirability. With both social demonstration goals, attention is focused on the appearance of the self, especially in relation to others. For a social demonstration-approach goal, success is garnering positive feedback from peers, social prestige, and having a good reputation compared to others (e.g., being popular or seen as important), and for a social demonstration-avoid goal, success is avoiding negative judgments from peers compared to others and lack of a reputation as socially awkward or ineffective (e.g., not being seen as a loser or geek). These social achievement goals are analogous to those identified in other domains, although described with different terms (e.g., mastery and performance in the academic domain).

Third, social goals have been conceptualized as the social reasons students have for the pursuit of academic achievement (a hybrid social-academic goal approach; Dowson & McInerney, 2001; Urdan & Maehr, 1995). Social goals identified in this approach are affiliation goals, approval goals, concern goals, and responsibility goals. A social affiliation goal is the desire to do well academically to enhance one's sense of belonging in the group. A social approval goal is the desire to do well academically to gain approval from others (parents, teachers, or peers). A social concern goal is the desire to do well academically so one can help or assist others in their personal or academic development. A social responsibility goal is the desire to do well academically to maintain an interpersonal commitment, fulfill one's obligation, or follow the social/moral rules.


Research on social goals has provided insight into students' academic adjustment in school. Social goals have implications for academic adjustment via the behaviors as well as the types of social relationships they promote (Wentzel, 2005). Responsibility and prosocial goals have been found to be positively related to academic engagement and achievement (e.g., Wentzel, 1996). Similarly, intimacy goals have been found to be positively associated with positive attitudes toward school (Anderman, 1999), engagement and achievement (Kiefer & Ryan, in press). Striving for responsibility, prosocial outcomes, and intimacy with peers are positive orientations towards social relations that also facilitate academic adjustment in the classroom. In contrast, popularity goals are less adaptive for students' academic adjustment. The pursuit of popularity goals has been found to be related to negative attitudes about school (Andermann, 1999) and disengagement in the form of help avoidance (Ryan, Hicks & Midgley, 1997). However, popularity goals are often found to be not related to engagement and achievement at school (Kiefer & Ryan, in press). Finally, social dominance goals seem the most detrimental for academic adjustment as they are negatively associated with effort, positively associated with disruptive behavior, and negatively associated with grades in school (Kiefer & Ryan, in press).

When students are focused on establishing power over their peers (making others do what they want and establishing their toughness) they are more likely to act in ways that disrupts the class and less likely to put effort into their schoolwork, and not surprisingly this undermines their achievement.

The social achievement goal approach to social goals has found that a social development goal is adaptive for classroom adjustment whereas social demonstration-approach and avoid goals are maladaptive, although for different reasons. A social development goal has been associated with prosocial behavior with peers in the classroom (e.g., cooperation and sharing). A social development goal has been negatively associated with disruptive and aggressive behavior (Ryan & Shim, in press).

A focus on developing social competence seems to be a positive orientation towards the social world that sets in motion adaptive beliefs and behaviors in the classroom. In contrast, a social demonstration-approach goal has been found to be positively associated with disruptive and aggressive behavior and negatively associated with prosocial behavior with peers in the classroom. A social demonstration-avoid goal has been found to be positively associated with anxious solitary behavior and worry (Ryan & Shim, in press). Thus, a focus on demonstrating social competence seems to lead to maladaptive behavior in the form of inappropriate actions that are active or external to the student. A social demonstration-avoid goal also has drawbacks but is manifested in actions that are more passive or internal to the student.

Some research suggests that it may be important to consider the fact that students may pursue multiple social achievement goals in the classroom. For example, a social development goal was found to ameliorate the positive relation between a social demonstration-approach goal and aggressive behavior (Ryan & Shim, in press). This suggests that an additional benefit of a social development goal is that it can minimize the aggressive behavior that is associated with a social demonstration-approach goal.

Concerning the social-academic hybrid approach to goals, qualitative research has found that these social goals (affiliative, approval, concern, and responsibility) are intertwined with students' comments about their affect, engagement, and achievement in school (Dowson & McInerney, 2001). A quantitative study found these social-academic goals to be distinct factors from their cognitive and metacognitive strategies for their work (Dowson & McInerney, 2004). An interesting area of future research will be further investigation of the relation of the relation of these social-academic goals to engagement and achievement.


Teachers need to attend to students' social goals as research has found them to be important to engagement and achievement. When students are not successful in the classroom, part of the explanation may be related to their social goals. Teachers should encourage adaptive social goals (e.g. prococial and development goals), redirect maladaptive social goals into more appropriate ones (e.g., steer from dominance goals to leadership goals) and vary the opportunities and nature of academic tasks so that social goals do not compete with or undermine academic goals and behaviors (e.g., seating and grouping of students; opportunities to collaborate with peers).

In sum, there are three key perspectives on social goals: (a) a goal content approach, (b) an achievement goal approach, and (c) a hybrid social-academic goal approach. For theory and research related to the social goal content perspective, see Martin Ford (1992), Kathryn Wentzel (1996), and Lynley Anderman (1999). For theory and research related to the achievement goal approach, see Carol Dweck (e.g., Erdley et al., 1997), Allison Ryan (Ryan & Shim, in press), Jeanne Horst (Horst, Finney, & Barron, 2007), and Andrew Elliot (Elliot, Gable, & Mapes, 2006). For theory and research related to a hybrid social-academic goal approach, see Tim Urdan (Urdan & Maehr, 1995) and Martin Dowson and Dennis McInerney (2001; 2004).


Anderman, L. H. (1999). Classroom goal orientation, school belonging and social goals as predictors of students' positive and negative affect following the transition to middle school. Journal of Research and Development in Education, 32, 89–103.

Anderman, L. H. & Anderman, E. M. (1999). Social predictors of changes in students' achievement goal orientations. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 24, 21–37.

Dowson, M., & McInerney, D. M. (2001). Psychological parameters of students' social and work-avoidance goals: A qualitative investigation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93, 35–42.

Dowson, M., & McInerney, D. M. (2004). The development and validation of the goal orientation and learning strategies survey (GOALS_A). Educational and Psychological Measurement, 64, 290–310.

Elliot, A. J., Gable, S. L., & Mapes, R. R. (2006). Approach and avoidance motivation in the social domain. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 378–391.

Erdley, C. A., Cain, K. M., Loomis, C. C., Dumas-Hines, F., & Dweck, C. (1997). Relations among children's social goals, implicit personality theories, and responses to social failure. Developmental Psychology, 33, 263–272.

Ford, M. E. (1992). Motivating humans: Goals, emotions, and personal agency beliefs. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Horst, S. J., Finney, S. J., & Barron, K. E. (2007). Moving beyond academic achievement measures: A study of social achievement goals. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 32, 667–698.

Jarvinen, D. W., & Nicholls, J. G. (1996). Adolescents' social goals, beliefs about the causes of social success, and satisfaction in peer relations. Developmental Psychology 32, 435–441.

Kiefer, S. M., & Ryan, A. M. (in press). Different implications of dominance, popularity and intimacy goals for academic adjustment during early adolescence.

Ryan, A. M., & Shim, S. O. (in press). An exploration of young adolescents' social achievement goals and social adjustment in middle school. Journal of Educational Psychology.

Ryan, A. M., Hicks, L., & Midgley, C. (1997). Social goals, academic goals, and avoidance of help seeking in the classroom. Journal of Early Adolescence, 17, 152–171.

Urdan, T., & Maehr, M. (1995). Beyond a two-goal theory of motivation: A case for social goals. Review of Educational Research, 65, 213–244.

Wentzel, K. R. (1996). Social and academic motivation in middle school: Concurrent and long-term relations to academic effort. Journal of Early Adolescence, 16, 390–406.

Wentzel, K. (2005). Peer relationships, motivation, and academic performance at school. In A. J. Elliot, & C. S. Dweck, (Eds.), Handbook of competence and motivation (pp. 279–296). New York: Guilford Publications.

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