Wrosch's Principle of Goal Disengagement

Instructor: Lisa Millraney

Lisa has 27 years of experience treating speech, language, memory and swallowing disorders. She has a master's degree in speech pathology from Vanderbilt University.

Persistence is a virtue, but sometimes it is best to know when to give up and move on. In this lesson, we will look at Carsten Wrosch's research on the concept and importance of goal disengagement.

'Never Give Up' - Is it Really the Best Attitude?

We are often told that the only way to succeed is through perseverance. Never give up! Nevertheless, she persisted. Quitters never win and winners never quit. Slow and steady wins the race. But is it always the case that stubborn insistence on a particular goal is always the best course of action?

Alongside the 'never give up' mindset, there runs a contrary thread of thought through society. Sometimes it is wisest to cut one's losses and move on, to know one's limits, strengths and weaknesses. In the words of the classic country song 'The Gambler,' sometimes you have to know when to hold your cards and play on, and when to fold and step away.

This mode of thinking has a name: goal disengagement. It is defined as an individual's ability to withdraw effort and psychological commitment from a goal when that goal cannot be achieved.

Carsten Wrosch and Goal Disengagement

Canadian researcher Dr. Carsten Wrosch has performed some of the most detailed studies of goal disengagement. Starting from the simple and obvious observation that sooner or later, everybody runs into a problem they cannot solve or a goal they cannot achieve, he set out to investigate how that process operates and what factors in individuals support or conflict with it.

Everyone's time and resources are limited, so being able to know when it is best to give up is a good adaptive strategy. It's not good for one's self-esteem to constantly fail at something, after all. With that in mind, we realize that alongside the ability to disengage, the opportunity for goal re-engagement, redirecting the energies from the abandoned goal to new ones, must be present.

If, to take one famous example, young Dwayne Johnson was a fair but not terrific football player, he could quit football (goal disengagement) and brood about it. Or he could decide to return to his family's roots (goal re-engagement) and reinvent himself as one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time, The Rock.

Dwayne Johnson became the legendary pro wrestler The Rock after disengaging from a past goal.
Dwayne Johnson as The Rock

The principle of goal disengagement applies to a huge variety of situations across the human lifespan. Sara's life goal was to have a happy marriage and children, but when her husband cheated on her, she decided to disengage from that goal. Claude devoted his life to becoming an ace reporter, until he developed a chronic illness and had to let that goal go.

Goal Disengagement: Easier for Some Than Others

For an assortment of reasons, some people find it much easier to disengage from previous goals and re-orient themselves toward new ones. Self-concept, support network, alternative goal setting, and overall ability to handle stress all play parts.

If Sara's entire self-image is based on being a wife and mother, the breakup of her marriage is going to be much harder for her to navigate. However, if she has a wide circle of friends and support at a place like her church, disengaging from those old goals will be, perhaps not easy, but less traumatic. If she has always secretly harbored a wish to start her own business, she may even see this event as an open doorway, and readily re-engage with a new goal of becoming an entrepreneur.

Claude was a hard-driving working man, who has always felt that his reporting skills were the only thing he had to offer the world. Without being able to work, he feels lost and without purpose. He can't stop thinking about the job he lost and the opportunities passing him by. Despite the fact that his illness is in no way his fault, he blames himself.

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