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Psychological Distress Linked to Internal Goal Conflict

New research finds that when our personal goals are divergent, leaving us torn as to which path to pursue, psychological stress can result.

In the study, researchers surveyed more than 200 young adults from the University of Exeter and Edith Cowan University (ECU) to investigate two forms of motivational conflict. The young adults in the study were aged 18-35, with an average age of 20.

Among this cohort, investigators explored inter-goal conflict, when pursuing one goal makes it difficult to pursue another, and ambivalence, or conflicting feelings about particular goals.

They discovered that each of these forms of goal conflict was independently associated with anxious and depressive symptoms but did not predict worsening of symptoms over one month.

“People with poorer mental health are more likely to report that their personal goals hinder one another,” said Dr. Nick Moberly, of the University of Exeter.

“Such conflict between goals may be more manageable if it is conscious.

“However, ambivalence may indicate a clash between a goal and a higher-order value that lies outside awareness.

“Attention to these deeper motivational conflicts may be an important step towards resolving them and relieving distress.”

Professor Joanne Dickson of ECU, said, “We know that striving for goals that are important to us gives life meaning and purpose and promotes wellbeing.

“However, when these goals generate conflict they can contribute to psychological distress.”

Inter-goal conflict occurs either because the objectives are incompatible or because pursuit of both goals draws upon a limited resource, such as time or money.

For example, a person’s goal to spend more time with their family may conflict with their goal to get promoted at work.

Ambivalence is thought to reflect a deeper motivational conflict of which the person is unaware.

For example, a person may feel ambivalent about initiating an intimate relationship because this challenges a more abstract goal of independence.

Source: University of Exeter

Psychological Distress Linked to Internal Goal Conflict

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Psychological Distress Linked to Internal Goal Conflict. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 29 May 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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