May 20, 2012

'Being the greatest' or 'getting better'?

For individuals it is wiser to focus on getting better than on being (and appearing) good
Much psychological research has shown that there is an important difference between so-called performance goals and mastery goals. Performance goals are about being able to demonstrate a certain skill or ability; mastery goals are about attaining progress and growth with respect to a certain skill. Psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson explains how the performance orientation, while very motivating has an important disadvantage:
"Performance goals are very motivating. [...] Students with performance goals often get the highest course grades; employees with strong performance goals often are the most productive. [...] But performance goals have a double-edged-sword-quality - those ties to self-worth that make them so motivating are also what makes them less adaptive when the going gets tougher." (Source).
In an interview I did with her, she explained how the mastery orientation has many important benefits over the performance orientation:
"Studies show that kids who see their goals in terms of getting better [...] find classroom material more fun and interesting, and process it more deeply. They are less prone to anxiety and depression than their be-good peers. They are more motivated, persist longer when the going gets tough, and are much more likely to improve over time." (Source)
It may also be wiser to focus on making a country better than on talking about how great it is
I sometimes think about this difference between focusing on trying to be and appear good and focusing on getting better when people talk about their countries. Could it be a getting better orientation is more effective than a being good orientation when it comes to talking about one's country, too? For instance, presidential candidate Mitt Romney called the United States “The Greatest Nation in the History of the Earth”. And lest you think that it is typical for conservatives to talk this way, president Obama does it too.

Could it be that talking about one's country in terms of being good (or even 'the greatest') is motivating and appealing to one's feelings of self-worth but actually a threat to a country's dealing with hard challenges and need for adapting to changes? I hypothesize that this is actually the case.

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