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Sacrifice—but at what price? A longitudinal study of young adults’ sacrifice of basic psychological needs in pursuit of career goals


Examining two, 3-wave prospective longitudinal samples of university students pursuing a career goal, we propose that young adults make personal sacrifices during goal pursuit. Specifically, we introduce the concept of basic psychological need sacrifice and suggest it is distinguishable from the sacrifice of maintenance and leisure activities. We found that sacrificing basic psychological needs had enduring affective and self-regulatory costs through the effect of increased need frustration over the academic year. Moreover, we found that the sacrifice of psychological needs stemmed from controlling motivational processes, such as extrinsic life aspirations, controlled career goal motivation (assessed at the start of the academic year) and controlled motivation for sacrificing (assessed midyear along with the three types of sacrifices). Psychological distress and need frustration were assessed at baseline and end-of-academic-year, while career goal progress was assessed at the end of the academic year. Implications of these findings for basic psychological needs theory are discussed.

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Fig. 1
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  1. 1.

    We did not find a moderating role for motivation for sacrifice. In other words, regardless of whether individuals felt more autonomous or controlled about sacrificing their needs, the sacrifice of psychological needs enhanced psychological distress and negatively impacted goal self-regulation.


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The first study of this paper served as the Master’s thesis for André St-Jacques who was supported by a fellowship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). This research was supported by a grant to Richard Koestner from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the Le Fonds de Recherche du Québec—Société et Culture (FQRSC-Quebec).

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Correspondence to Anne C. Holding.

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See Tables 2 and 3; Figs. 3 and 4.

Table 2 Final rotated factor loadings for sacrifice items in Sample 1
Table 3 Final rotated factor loadings for need frustration and sacrifice items in Sample 1
Fig. 3

Confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) of three types of sacrifice in sample 2. *p < .05; **p < .01; ***p < .001

Fig. 4

Confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) of need sacrifice and need frustration in sample 2. *p < .05; **p < .01; ***p < .001

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Holding, A.C., St-Jacques, A., Verner-Filion, J. et al. Sacrifice—but at what price? A longitudinal study of young adults’ sacrifice of basic psychological needs in pursuit of career goals. Motiv Emot 44, 99–115 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-019-09777-7

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  • Self-determination theory
  • Need sacrifice
  • Basic psychological needs theory
  • Need frustration
  • Career goals
  • Distress