My research takes a social-cognitive approach to examining goal pursuit. I am interested in the cognitive and affective factors that influence how people pursue their goals and whether they pursue them effectively. More specifically, I focus on three important issues that affect the efficacy of goal pursuit: 1) the role of interest in optimizing motivation and self-regulation, 2) how beliefs about the nature of interest influence motivation, and 3) how the structure of achievement contexts influences motivation for people with different mindsets or goals. I detail my research in each of these areas below.


The pursuit of achievement goals is often physically and cognitively taxing due to its reliance on high levels of effort and self-control. Prior research suggests that the exertion of self-control draws from a finite pool of self-regulatory resources, and when those resources are depleted, subsequent efforts to exert self-control suffer (see Muraven, 2012 for a review). Therefore, both goal engagement and persistence may be negatively affected by self-regulatory depletion.

My research in this area examines the role that interest plays in facilitating goal pursuit by illuminating its self-regulatory benefits (O’Keefe & Linnenbrink-Garcia, in press). Drawing from prior work suggesting that interest is composed, in part, of affect- (e.g., excitement) and value-related (e.g., personal meaning) components (see Renninger & Hidi, 2011 for a review), I experimentally examined how these factors interact to influence performance and self-regulatory resources. Across multiple studies, I found that performance on various tasks (e.g., anagrams) was not only best when both components were high, but self-regulatory resources were also the least depleted. This was true whether value-related interest was measured or manipulated. Contrary to previous work on resource depletion, my research demonstrates that interest can optimize performance while simultaneously maintaining resources. This work underscores the importance of interest in facilitating and maintaining goal engagement.

My future work in this area will take several directions. First, I intend to examine how interest may facilitate goal engagement even when self-regulatory resources are depleted. This is important because various stages of goal pursuit require self-regulatory resources, and interest may circumvent problems caused by their depletion. For example, studies will examine how interest may facilitate the initiation of goal pursuit, sustain engagement, and aid in efficient goal switching. A second direction will investigate the potential for situational interest (i.e., interest invoked by qualities of the environment) to optimize goal pursuit with the objective of understanding how environments, such as educational and organizational settings, can be designed to increase motivation and performance. For instance, work environments that afford a choice of tasks or novel challenges may engender interest and thereby increase productivity and help people maintain their self-regulatory resources.


People are often told to find their passion, as though it is something permanent within them simply waiting to be revealed. Alternatively, an interest or passion can be depicted as something that is fostered and developed. My research on whether people believe that interests are fixed or malleable suggests that these beliefs can have numerous motivational consequences.

One important question is whether these beliefs influence openness to learning about other domains once a primary interest has been identified. In laboratory studies, undergraduates were recruited who held either a fixed or malleable theory of interest and had also reported a primary interest in either humanities or technology (O’Keefe, Dweck, & Walton, 2013, 2014). At a later date, they read two academic articles relating to the humanities and technology and reported their interest in each. It was found that a malleable theory led to significantly greater reports of interest in the mismatching article than did the fixed theory. That is, malleable theorists reported more personal value and enjoyment for the mismatching domain. This result was replicated by manipulating theories of interest with Psychology Today-type articles that espoused one of the two beliefs. Moreover, none of these results were accounted for by openness to experience. In other work, I found that fixed theorists reported absolutely no interest in a greater number of academic domains than did malleable theorists, again demonstrating a lack of openness to potential interests.

But why would a belief that interests are malleable necessarily lead to greater interest in domains outside of one’s primary area of interest? My research suggests that it is associated with a belief that various domains, such as the arts and sciences, have potential for integration—they can inform and enrich each other. Therefore, domains outside of one’s primary interest have relevance that may not be recognized by those with a fixed theory. Furthermore, this belief in the potential for integration mediates the relation between theories of interest and interest in the mismatching article. This result is buttressed by the fact that comprehension of the mismatching article was significantly higher for malleable theorists, and they demonstrated higher value for those domains when asked to allocate university funds to various academic programs.

The malleable, more agentic approach to interest development is likely to contribute to adaptive motivation. To this end, my ongoing research focuses on the experiential and behavioral consequences of these beliefs. Because a fixed theory reflects a belief that interests are unchanging, it implies that they are inherent, fully formed, and provide an unlimited source of motivation. In contrast, a malleable theory reflects a belief that interests can be developed, and therefore may require continual investment. This suggest that as people’s engagement in their area of interest becomes difficult, malleable theorists may be more likely to persist, whereas fixed theorists might disengage, deciding that it was not their passion after all. My future work will examine other consequences. For example, given that a malleable theory leads to interest in a greater variety of domains and that those domains can be integrated, it should also increase creativity and innovation. It may also have a downside, such that it could potentially dilute interests across multiple domains, weakening some pursuits.


The pursuit of goals is also affected by the meaning and value individuals ascribe to them, resulting in distinct goal orientations (see Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Elliot, 2005 for reviews). Those with a learning (or mastery) goal orientation engage more in goals that promote the development and improvement of their abilities. In contrast, those with a performance goal orientation are primarily concerned with demonstrating or validating their competence relative to others (or avoiding appearing incompetent). Previous research has demonstrated that these two goal orientations result in different cognitive, affective, and behavioral patterns, with learning goal orientations sustaining intrinsic motivation more effectively. My research in this area has examined (a) the environment’s potential to shape achievement goal orientations and motivation, and (b) the effects of congruency between goals that are held by the individual and those invoked by the environment.

Shaping Achievement Goals and Motivation

Although individuals may endorse personal goal orientations, environments have goal structures of their own that may influence the goals individuals adopt. In a longitudinal study, I examined how adolescent students’ participation in a learning-goal-structured academic environment shaped their goal orientations (O’Keefe, Ben-Eliyahu, Linennbrink-Garcia, 2013). I found that the learning goal-structured environment reduced concerns about competitiveness, resulting in the attenuation of performance goal orientations. Furthermore, the environment augmented personal learning goal orientations and interest, which were sustained six months later after returning to a performance goal-structured environment.

In another project, I examined how mode of engagement (individual, competitive, and collaborative) influences the adoption of achievement goal orientations, as well as interest and performance in the context of an educational game, a context that is quite different from normal educational environments (Plass, O’Keefe et al., 2013). Participants who played an educational game either competitively or collaboratively reported the strongest interest and learning goal orientations. This is particularly noteworthy because learning goals were able to thrive even when competition would have typically strengthened performance goal orientations. Furthermore, the competitive mode led to the best performance and interest, demonstrating that the game context allowed competition and learning goals to have a synergistic effect. Game contexts are less threatening than the types of contexts often studied, such as classrooms and work environments. Therefore, concerns about normative ability were allayed and students were able to focus on improving their abilities, while capitalizing on the motivational benefits of competition.

Person x Situation Goal Congruency

My work in this area also examines how environmental goal structures interact with the goal orientations people bring to the achievement context. It tests hypotheses about the situational effectiveness of learning and performance goal orientations, particularly the hypothesis that goals are most effectively pursued when personal and situational goals are congruent. In a longitudinal study examining how students responded to college courses that employed either criterion-based grading (learning goal structure) or norm-based grading (performance goal structure) practices, students’ achievement, interest, perceived competence, and use of meta-cognitive strategies increased when their personal goal orientation was congruent with their classroom’s goal structure (O’Keefe, Messersmith, & Linnenbrink-Garcia, 2009, in prep). Conversely, when personal goal orientations and environmental goal structures were not congruent, these outcomes suffered significantly. In contrast to previous research, these results suggest that both learning and performance goal orientations can be more or less effective depending on the goal context.

I have since extended this work, investigating the interaction of implicit theories of intelligence and achievement goals (O’Keefe, under review; O’Keefe et al., 2011). Most individuals endorse a belief that intelligence is either limited and fixed (entity theory) or a belief that it is malleable (incremental theory). Believing that abilities are fixed, entity theorists are concerned with validating their level of ability, and consequently adopt performance goals. Incremental theorists, however, believe that effort fosters competence, and consequently adopt learning goals.

This tradition of research has primarily focused on the consequences naturally resulting from holding one theory of intelligence or the other. Our everyday pursuits, however, do not always permit us to pursue goals in the manner we prefer. Incremental theorists may find themselves in situations in which performance goals are most salient, and entity theorists may find themselves in situations in which learning goals are more salient. Indeed, my experimental research has suggested that performance, persistence, and the use of self-regulatory resources may be optimal when entity theorists pursue performance goals and when incremental theorists pursue learning goals. Conversely, relatively less optimal outcomes can occur when entity theorists pursue learning goals and when incremental theorists pursue performance goals. This work suggests that the fit between mindsets and environmental goal structures is important to consider in addition to investigating each independently, and has implications for the design of classrooms and other organizational settings.

My future work will continue to explore goal congruence and the mechanisms for its facilitating and disruptive effects. For example, extending my work on theory of intelligence-goal congruence, I plan to examine the motivational consequences of fit between theories of intelligence and performance feedback. Because the goals endorsed by entity and incremental theorists emphasize different definitions of competence, they also diagnose their performance differently (see O’Keefe, 2013 for a review). Performance goals are largely focused on documenting ability, rather than developing it. Therefore, individuals who endorse this goal largely measure success by how they perform relative to others and are most attuned to normative feedback. In contrast, those with learning goals are most concerned with developing their abilities and improving upon them. Because they tend to measure success by the degree to which they are learning and improving, they should be most attuned to feedback that assesses these concerns. Therefore, similar congruence effects should emerge as a result between theories of intelligence and the type of feedback provided.


In summary, my research explores motivational processes involved in the pursuit of goals. My future research will expand on this general theme, emphasizing the dynamic relation between the individual and the goal context. Furthermore, my work will continue to employ various designs (e.g., experimental and longitudinal), methods (e.g., implicit measures, eye-tracking), and statistical techniques (e.g., SEM, HLM) to gain a deeper understanding of motivational phenomena and their underlying mechanisms. Given my focus on motivation and interest, I also intend to conduct research that addresses important social issues, such as closing the achievement gap and retaining women and minorities in STEM programs.


Dweck, C. S., & Leggett, E. L. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95(2), 256-273.

Elliot, A. J. (2005). A Conceptual History of the Achievement Goal Construct. In A. J. Elliot & C. S. Dweck (Eds.), Handbook of competence and motivation (pp. 52-72). New York, NY: Guilford Publications Guilford Publications.

Muraven, M. (2012). Ego-depletion: Theory and evidence. In R. M. Ryan (Ed.), Oxford handbook of motivation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

O’Keefe, P. A. (under review). Optimizing Goal Pursuit by Fitting Theories of Intelligence to Achievement Goals. Submitted to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

O’Keefe, P. A. (2013). Mindsets and self-evaluation: How beliefs about intelligence can create a preference for growth over defensiveness. In S. B. Kaufman (Ed.),The Complexity of Greatness: Beyond Talent or Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

O’Keefe, P. A., Ben-Eliyahu, A., & Linnenbrink-Garcia, L. (2013). Shaping achievement goal orientations in a mastery-structured environment and concomitant changes in related contingencies of self-worth. Motivation and Emotion37(1), 50–64. doi: 10.1007/s11031-012-9293-6

O’Keefe, P. A., Dweck, C. S., Shah, J. Y., & Linnenbrink-Garcia, L. (2011, January). The situational adaptiveness of implicit theories of intelligence. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology, San Antonio, TX.

O’Keefe, P. A., Dweck, C. S., & Walton, G. (2013). Implicit theories of interest. Presented at the Society of Personality and Social Psychology, New Orleans, LA.

O’Keefe, P. A., Dweck, C. S., & Walton, G. (2014). Implicit theories of interest and motivation. Accepted presentation at the Society of Personality and Social Psychology, Austin, TX.

O’Keefe, P. A., & Linnenbrink-Garcia, L. (in press). The role of interest in optimizing performance and self-regulation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

O’Keefe, P. A., Messersmith, E. E., & Linnenbrink-Garcia, L. (in preparation). Interactive effects of achievement goal orientations and classroom goal structures. To be submitted to Science.

O’Keefe, P. A., Messersmith, E. E., & Linnenbrink-Garcia, L. (2009). The facilitation of fit: Interactive effects of achievement goal orientations and classroom goal structures. Presented at the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association, San Diego, CA.

Plass, J., O’Keefe, P. A., Homer, B. D., Hayward, E., Case, J., Stein, M., & Perlin, K. (2013). The impact of individual, competitive, and collaborative mathematics game play on learning, performance, and motivation.Journal of Educational Psychology.

Renninger, K. A., & Hidi, S. (2011). Revisiting the conceptualization, measurement, and generation of interest. Educational Psychologist46(3), 168-184.