The level at which a person sets his significant goals; the level of performance to which he aspires.An individual’s aspiration level has an important bearing on his personality and adjustment. It is a basic component of his self-image, the way he appears in his own eyes. Generally speaking, most normal individuals have been found to set their significant goals just a little higher than they are sure of attaining.
There may be an element of self-flattery in this tendency, but it is considered healthy since it is a sign of selfacceptance and self-confidence. Relatively high goals also act as a motivating force, since they give us something to reach for. Nevertheless, the level must remain within reasonable limits, as Coleman has pointed out: “Well- adjusted people tend to have a reasonably accurate evaluation of themselves in relation to their world and hence a fairly realistic level of aspiration.
Maladjusted people, on the other hand, tend to be unrealistic—to set their aspirations either too high or too low—leading to inevitable failure or to wasted opportunities and, in either case, to unhappiness.” (Coleman, 1964).Level of aspiration is a universal feature of personality, but it appears to be particularly relevant in a society like our own in which the pressure to achieve is so great and feelings of success and failure so crucial. Too often parents set goals for their children on the basis of their own ambitions, with little regard to the young person’s own capabilities or realistic appraisal of himself.
They also tend to be overinfluenced by comparisons with other people’s children, or interpret too rigidly the “growth gradients” they find in textbooks. Some parents develop feelings of rejection toward their children when they are not measuring up even during infancy or early childhood, and in some environments it is not unusual for a father or mother to warn a third- grader that he won’t get into a “good” college unless he studies harder.
If the child continues to fall even slightly behind, such parents apply still greater pressure and run the risk of inflicting severe psychological damage on him. Many children cannot do well under constant pressure, and some develop an intense feeling of failure which leads them to set unrealistically low goals for themselves throughout life.Experiments have thrown a good deal of additional light on aspiration level. Lewin et al. (1944) have shown that a history of repeated success leads to an increased level of aspiration: the more we accomplish, the higher our goals. Experiences of failure, on the other hand, have more complex effects.
Infrequent failures tend either to lower the aspiration level or to cause it to rise less rapidly than under conditions of repeated success. Continuous failure motivates the individual either to set his goals so low that success is guaranteed, or so high that his inability to achieve them does not produce a feeling of failure. In either case, the person is setting up a shield against selfexposure, and is deceiving himself about his abilities in order to protect his ego.
This situation can usually be prevented if parents and teachers are careful to give children tasks that allow them a distinct possibility of success. Such tasks should be challenging without pushing them beyond their capabilities. An approach of this kind helps them establish a realistic level of aspiration that will carry over to adulthood.Other studies have shown that group standards have a significant effect on individual levels of aspiration.
In one experiment, several groups of college students worked on simple arithmetic problems. The time it took each group to finish a page was publicly announced, and directly afterward each student privately recorded the score he expected to make on the next test—that is, his level of aspiration.
It was found that these private levels were influenced by the group’s performance. Students who scored above the group average tended to lower their estimates; those who scored below average expected to do better. They were apparently exhibiting a tendency to conform, or at least a “safety in numbers” psychology.Another important fact is that we carefully select the groups with which we compare ourselves.
A good golfer chooses people who shoot in the seventies or eighties as his “reference group”; a duffer compares himself with people who shoot well over a hundred. To test this idea, college students were given intelligence test problems and were later told whether their scores were above or below those of high school, college, or graduate students. Each subject was then asked to estimate his score on a subsequent test.
It was found that students who found that their scores were below those of high school students raised their level of aspiration, while those who scored higher than the graduate students lowered their estimates most (Festinger, 1942). These results are further evidence not only of a tendency to conform to one’s own group, but also to be influenced by the factor of prestige. See SOCIAL NORM, SUGGESTION.