Personality and Goals

In this photo, a person with long, curly red hair and pale skin, who is wearing a loose white blouse and beaded jewelry, pins a photograph of a fashion model to a cork bulletin board. The board features various fashion sketches, photographs, and pages torn from magazines. It appears to be a vision board for goal setting. The room behind the person is out of focus, but a potted plant and a large mirror are visible against a white wall in the background. This photo accompanies a blog post about the relationship between personality and life goals.

People often see a new year as a time for goal setting. But what role does personality play in determining which life goals we decide to pursue?

Recently on The Science of Personality, cohosts Ryne Sherman, PhD, chief science officer, and Blake Loepp, PR manager, spoke with Olivia Atherton, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Houston, about personality and goal setting.

“Everything we do on a daily basis is goal driven,” Olivia said. “We all have life-orienting goals that motivate what we want to do and where we want to go.”

Let’s dive into this illuminating conversation about the degree to which personality influences the types of goals we set, reasons we might change our goals, and why we tend to place less importance on achieving goals over time.

Personality and Life Goals

Olivia and her colleagues surveyed more than 500 college students and followed up 20 years later to understand how personality affects motivation and achievement. Their project, the Berkeley Longitudinal Study (BLS), examined seven types of life goals in relation to personality and individual differences using the Big Five and other constructs.

As a quick reference for the following discussion, the Big Five personality traits are (1) extraversion, (2) agreeableness, (3) openness, (4) conscientiousness, and (5) emotional stability, which is sometimes called neuroticism. These five traits correspond roughly to the seven scales of the Hogan Personality Inventory. The seven types of life goals are (1) aesthetic goals, (2) economic goals, (3) family and relationship goals, (4) hedonistic goals, (5) political goals, (6) religious goals, and (7) social goals. These life goals have many parallels to the 10 scales of Hogan’s Motives, Values, Preferences Inventory.

The BLS found that personality does have an impact on the goals we pursue. Olivia’s research showed that the personality tendencies that people had at age 18 were related to how their goals changed over time. For instance, people who were more agreeable showed decreases in family and relationship goals in adulthood. This is because they invested in goal-relevant activities (forming relationships, marrying, having children). Therefore, they placed less importance on those goals as they achieved them.

A second finding from Olivia’s research was that some of the life goals that people found important at age 18 were related to how their personalities changed from ages 18 to 40. Those people who were more agreeable at age 18 and placed less importance on family and relationship goals at age 40 actually became more conscientious. This is likely because their new familial roles (i.e., spouses and parents) required a certain level of conscientiousness. In other words, achieving their goals contributed to changing that personality characteristic.

Personality and Goal Importance

While the BLS study didn’t focus on whether the same personality characteristics that predict goal importance are the same characteristics that predict goal achievement, it’s an intuitive assumption. “If your personality tendencies lead you to place importance on certain types of goals, the same characteristics may also be helpful for you in putting effort towards that goal and achieving it,” Olivia hypothesized.

“People with certain personality tendencies tend to place more importance on certain types of life goals,” she continued. “This means that these personality characteristics might be suited for different life goals.”

The links between personality and goal importance are intriguing—and even surprising:

  • ExtraversionExtraversion was linked with hedonistic goals, or life goals revolving around pleasure and fun.
  • Agreeableness – People who were more agreeable tended to place higher importance on social goals, or life goals focused on helping others.
  • Openness – Openness was related to the most types of life goals, likely because people with high openness tend to be interested in many things. Aesthetic goals, hedonistic goals, religious goals, and social goals were all linked to openness.
  • Conscientiousness – Being responsible, organized, and hardworking was most related to economic goals and family and relationship goals, or the domains of work and love.
  • Neuroticism – Neuroticism was associated with aesthetic goals, likely because the arts can serve as a creative outlet for those who tend to be more anxious or depressed.

Having goals helps us find purpose and meaning using the limited time, resources, and effort that we can expend. Connecting our goals to what matters most to us is a useful way of reaching toward what we want to achieve in life.

Advice for Goal Setters

Olivia shared three pieces of advice that put goal setting into the context of personality and development.

Because we pursue life goals over the course of a lifetime, there are many big, small, and individual ways to work toward achievement. We can leverage our personality strengths and values to identify the goals we want to devote our effort to accomplishing. We should also be mindful that the goals we pursue can cause development in our personality, as in the example of increased conscientiousness for those who pursued relationship and family goals.

2.     It’s OK to change your life goals.

Shifting life goals is a natural part of growing. In our late teens and early twenties, we tend to have the most life goals because we are still trying to determine what matters to us. As we age, we refine our values and revisit which goals we want to pursue. Goals can also become less important or relevant over time as we achieve them. Don’t be afraid to adapt the goals you emphasize as you develop along your life path.

3.     Revisit your goals at any time of the year.

While the beginning of a year is a good time to reflect and make plans, so is the beginning of a month, week, or day. There’s nothing magical about a new year for setting and pursuing goals. Be willing to start over and try again whenever you want.

“If you focus on pursuing the things that are interesting to you and working towards those goals, whatever it might be, I’m confident that people will end up in the places they want,” Olivia said.

Listen to this conversation in full on episode 67 of The Science of Personality. Never miss an episode by following us anywhere you get podcasts. Cheers, everybody!