Get Moving! The Psychology of Motivation

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 03.18.2018
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

1 – Introduction to Motivation

1.1 – Defining Motivation

1.1.1 – Overview

Motivation describes the wants or needs that direct behavior toward a goal. It is an urge to behave or act in a way that will satisfy certain conditions, such as wishes, desires, or goals. Older theories of motivation stated that rational thought and reason were the guiding factors in human motivation; however, psychologists now believe that motivation may be rooted in basic impulses to optimize well-being, minimize physical pain, and maximize pleasure.

1.1.2 – Drives and Motives

Motivations are commonly separated into drives and motives. Drives are primarily biological, like thirst, hunger, sleepiness, and the need to reproduce—all of which lead us to seek out and take part in certain activities. Drives are believed to originate within a person and may not require external stimuli to encourage behavior. Motives, on the other hand, are primarily driven by social and psychological mechanisms, such as work, family, and relationships. They include factors like praise and approval.

Both drives and motives can be manipulated by stimulation and deprivation. Motivation can be stimulated by uncomfortable or aversive conditions or events (shocks, loud noise, or excessive heat or cold can motivate us to seek better conditions) or by attractions to positive or pleasurable conditions or events (such as food or sex). We also become motivated when we’re deprived of something that we want or need, like adequate nutrition or social contact.

1.1.3 – Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Motivation can be intrinsic (arising from internal factors) or extrinsic (arising from external factors).

Intrinsically-motivated behaviors are generated by the sense of personal satisfaction that they bring. They are driven by an interest or enjoyment in the task itself that comes from the individual, not society. For example, if you are in college because you enjoy learning and want to make yourself a more well-rounded individual, you are intrinsically motivated. Intrinsic motivation is a critical element in cognitive, social, and physical development; those individuals who are intrinsically motivated are likely to perform better and improve their skills at a given task.

Extrinsically-motivated behaviors, in contrast, are performed in order to receive something from others. They do not come from within the individual, but from society—other people. For example, employees might do their work because they want the company to pay them, not because they love the work. Many athletes are driven by the goal of winning, beating the competition, and receiving praise from fans; they are not driven by the intrinsic satisfaction they get from playing the sport. Similarly, if you are in college because you want to make yourself more marketable for a high-paying career or to satisfy the demands of your parents, then your motivation is more extrinsic in nature.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: Intrinsic motivation comes from within the individual and results in a sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Extrinsic motivation such as punishments, rewards, and other types of compensation, come from outside the individual.

In reality, our motivations are often a mix of both intrinsic and extrinsic factors, and the nature of the mix can change over time. For example, say cooking is one of your favorite hobbies: you love to cook for others whenever you get a chance, and you can easily spend hours in the kitchen. You are intrinsically motivated to cook. Then you decide to go to culinary school and eventually get a job working as a chef in a good restaurant. You are now getting extrinsic reinforcement (e.g., getting paid) for your work, and may over time become more extrinsically than intrinsically motivated. Sometimes, intrinsic motivation can diminish when extrinsic motivation is given—a process known as the overjustification effect. This can lead to extinguishing the intrinsic motivation and creating a dependence on extrinsic rewards for continued performance.

1.1.4 – Motivation vs. Emotion

While motivation and emotion can be intricately linked, they are two fundamentally different things. Motivation describes the wants or needs that direct behavior toward a goal; in contrast, an emotion is a subjective state of being that we often describe as a feeling. Emotion and motivation are linked in several ways: both influence behavior and can lead us to take action, and emotion itself can act as a motivator. For example, the emotion of fear can motivate a person to leave a stressful situation, while the emotion of happiness can motivate a person to be more productive on a project that reinforces that emotion.

2 – Theories of Motivation

2.1 – Evolutionary Theory of Motivation

2.1.1 – Introduction

The basic idea of evolutionary psychology is that genetic mutations are capable of altering an organism’s behavioral traits as well as its physical traits. Like physical traits, these mutations in behavioral traits may help the organism reproduce; this in turn allows the mutations to be passed on to the next generation. In this way, individuals are motivated to engage in behaviors that maximize their genetic fitness.

2.1.2 – Genetic Fitness

Evolutionary Psychology: Evolutionary psychology suggests that individuals are motivated to engage in behaviors that maximize their genetic fitness.

All animals, including humans, need to act in ways that will improve their reproductive success. This results in social processes that maximize individuals’ genetic fitness, or ability to pass their genes to the next generation. According to evolutionary theory, those who are the most fit are the most likely to survive, and eventually the population evolves in such a way that their traits manifest themselves across the population.

Consider the following example: in a population’s gene pool, a genotype exists for an infant that is unattached from its mother—it will crawl away and does not have any “love” or other significant attachment to its mother. Over time, mutations accumulate and another genotype develops that causes infants to become uncomfortable and cry when their mothers leave them. Naturally, the crying infant who signals distress will be more protected from the elements and other predatory environmental forces than the unattached infant. Thus, the “attached” infant has a higher chance of survival. Over many generations, more “attached” infants will survive to mate and pass on their gene for attachment. Thus, a new behavior develops by means of natural selection. This illustrates the basic idea behind evolutionary psychology in human development: the innate behaviors of very young children are pre-programmed in their genotypes and can be understood by studying the environmental forces that surrounded our ancestors.

2.1.3 – Evolutionary Perspective on Motivation

From an evolutionary point of view, behaviors are not made consciously: they are instinctual, and based on what is most advantageous in terms of passing one’s genes on to the next generation. William James (1842–1910) was an important contributor to early research into motivation, and he is often referred to as the father of psychology in the United States. James theorized that behavior was driven by a number of survival instincts. From a biological perspective, an instinct is a species-specific pattern of behavior that is not learned. There was, however, considerable controversy between James and his contemporaries over the exact definition of instinct. James proposed several dozen special human instincts, but many of his contemporaries created different lists. A mother’s protection of her baby, fondness for sugar, and hunting prey were among the human behaviors proposed as true instincts during James’ era. This view—that human behavior is driven by instincts—received a fair amount of criticism because of the undeniable role of learning in shaping all sorts of human behavior.

2.1.4 – Optimization Theory

Optimization theory is related to evolutionary theory, and is concerned with assessing the success of a behavior. It attempts to identify behavioral strategies that offer the highest return under a given set of conditions using a cost/benefit analysis. In this context, success or fitness is judged by considering the number of offspring that the individual performing the behavior would contribute to the next generation. Optimization theory states that individuals would be motivated to adopt strategies that allow them to consume the most energy (e.g., to maximize their food intake) while expending the least amount of energy (e.g., to minimize their exercise output).

2.2 – Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s theory is based on the premise that humans are motivated by needs that are hierarchically ranked.

2.2.1 – Overview

We all think of ourselves as having various needs—the need for food, for example, or the need for companionship—that influence our choices and behaviors. This idea also underlies some theories of motivation. In 1943, Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of needs that spans the spectrum of motives, ranging from the biological to the individual to the social.

2.2.2 – Motivation and Needs

Maslow’s theory defines motivation as the process of satisfying certain needs that are required for long-term development. According to Maslow, a need is a relatively lasting condition or feeling that requires relief or satisfaction, and it tends to influence action over the long term. Some needs (like hunger) may decrease when satisfied, while others (like curiosity) may not.

2.2.3 – Maslow’s Hierarchy

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, higher levels of needs can only be pursued when the lower levels are fulfilled.

Maslow’s theory is based on a simple premise: human beings have needs that are hierarchically ranked. There are some needs that are basic to all human beings, and in their absence, nothing else matters. We are ruled by these needs until they are satisfied. After we satisfy our basic needs, they no longer serve as motivators and we can begin to satisfy higher-order needs.

Maslow organized human needs into a pyramid that includes (from lowest-level to highest-level) physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization needs. According to Maslow, one must satisfy lower-level needs before addressing needs that occur higher in the pyramid. For example, if someone is starving, it is quite unlikely that he will spend a lot of time, or any time at all, wondering whether other people think he is good person. Instead, all of his energies are geared toward finding something to eat.

2.2.4 – Physiological Needs

The most basic of Maslow’s needs are physiological needs, such as the need for air, food, and water. When you are very hungry, for example, all your behavior may be motivated by the need to find food. Once you eat, the search for food ceases, and the need for food no longer motivates you.

2.2.5 – Safety Needs

Once physiological needs are satisfied, people tend to become concerned about safety needs. Are they safe from danger, pain, or an uncertain future? At this stage they will be motivated to direct their behavior toward obtaining shelter and protection in order to satisfy this need.

2.2.6 – Love/Belonging Needs

Once safety needs have been met, social needs for love/belonging become important. This can include the need to bond with other human beings, the need to be loved, and the need to form lasting attachments. Having no attachments can negatively affect health and well-being; as a result, people are motivated to find friends and romantic partners.

2.2.7 – Esteem Needs

Once love and belonging needs have been satisfied, esteem needs become more salient. Esteem needs refer to the desire to be respected by one’s peers, to feel important, and to be appreciated. People will often look for ways to achieve a sense of mastery, and they may seek validation and praise from others in order to fulfill these needs.

2.2.8 – Self-Actualization

At the highest level of the hierarchy, attention shifts to the need for self-actualization, which is a need that essentially equates to achieving one’s full potential. This can be seen in acquiring new skills, taking on new challenges, and behaving in a way that will help you to achieve your life goals. According to Maslow and other humanistic theorists, self-actualization reflects the humanistic emphasis on positive aspects of human nature. Maslow suggested that this is an ongoing, life-long process and that only a small percentage of people actually achieve a self-actualized state.

2.3 – Drive-Reduction Theory of Motivation

According to drive-reduction theory, humans are motivated to satisfy physiological needs in order to maintain homeostasis.

2.3.1 –  Overview

Motivation describes the wants or needs that direct behavior toward a goal. Motivations are commonly separated into two types: drives are acts of motivation like thirst or hunger that have primarily biological purposes, while motives are fueled primarily by social and psychological mechanisms.

2.3.2 – Drives and Homeostasis

An early theory of motivation proposed that the maintenance of homeostasis is particularly important in directing behavior. Homeostasis is the tendency to maintain a balance, or optimal level, within a biological system. In a body system, a control center (which is often part of the brain) receives input from receptors (which are often complexes of neurons ). The control center directs effectors (which may be other neurons) to correct any imbalance in the body detected by the control center.

The purpose of biological drives is to correct disturbances of homeostasis. Unsatisfied drives are detected by neurons concentrated in the hypothalamus in the brain. These neurons then produce an integrated response to bring the drive back to its optimal level. For instance, when you are dehydrated, freezing cold, or exhausted, the appropriate biological responses are activated automatically (e.g., body fat reserves are mobilized, urine production is inhibited, you shiver, blood is shunted away from the body surface, etc.). While your body automatically responds to these survival drives, you also become motivated to correct these disturbances by eating, drinking water, resting, or actively seeking or generating warmth by moving. In essence, you are motivated to engage in whatever behavior is necessary to fulfill an unsatisfied drive. One way that the body elicits this behavioral motivation is by increasing physiological arousal.

2.3.3 – Drive-Reduction Theory

Drive-reduction theory was first developed by Clark Hull in 1943. According to this theory, deviations from homeostasis create physiological needs. These needs result in psychological drive states that direct behavior to meet the need and, ultimately, bring the system back to homeostasis. When a physiological need is not satisfied, a negative state of tension is created; when the need is satisfied, the drive to satisfy that need is reduced and the organism returns to homeostasis. In this way, a drive can be thought of as an instinctual need that has the power to motivate behavior.

Father of Drive Reduction Theory: Clark Leonard Hull developed drive-reduction theory, one of the earliest theories of motivation.

For example, if it’s been a while since you ate, your blood sugar levels will drop below normal. Low blood sugar induces a physiological need and a corresponding drive state (i.e., hunger) that will direct you to seek out and consume food. Eating will eliminate the hunger, and, ultimately, your blood sugar levels will return to normal.

Drive-reduction theory also emphasizes the role that habits play in the type of behavioral response in which we engage. A habit is a pattern of behavior in which we regularly engage; once we have engaged in a behavior that successfully reduces a drive, we are more likely to engage in that behavior whenever faced with that drive in the future (Graham & Weiner, 1996).

2.3.4 – Primary and Secondary Drives

Drive-reduction theory distinguishes between primary and secondary drives. Primary drives are innate biological needs (e.g., thirst, hunger, and desire for sex) that are usually necessary for survival. Secondary drives, on the other hand, are not usually necessary for survival and are often linked to social or identity factors (e.g., the desire for wealth). Secondary drives are associated with primary drives because the satisfaction of secondary drives indirectly satisfies primary drives. For example, the desire for wealth is not necessary for survival; however, wealth provides you with money that can be used to acquire food, shelter, and other basic needs, thereby indirectly satisfying these primary drives. Secondary drives become associated with primary drives through classical conditioning.

2.3.5 – Drive-Reduction Theory and Learning

According to Hull, drive reduction is a major aspect of learning. Drives are thought to underlie all behavior in that behaviors are only conditioned, or learned, if the reinforcement satisfies a drive. Individuals faced with more than one need at the same time experience multiple drives, and research has shown that multiple drives can lead to more rapid learning than a single drive.

2.3.6 – Critiques of Drive-Reduction Theory

There are several issues that leave the validity of drive-reduction theory open for debate. For one, drive-reduction theory has trouble explaining why humans and other animals voluntarily increase tension by exploring their environments, even when they are not hungry or thirsty. There are also complications to drive-reduction theory caused by so-called “pleasure-seeking” behaviors, which seem to be contradictory to the theory’s precepts. Why would an individual actively seek out more stimulation if it is already in a state of relaxation and fulfillment? Proponents of drive-reduction theory would argue that one is never in a state of complete fulfillment, and thus, there are always drives that need to be satisfied.

2.4 – Arousal Theory of Motivation

Arousal theory expands upon drive-reduction theory by considering levels of arousal as potential motivators.

2.4.1 – Introduction

The purpose of biological drives is to correct disturbances of homeostasis. According to drive-reduction theory, the body is motivated to engage in whatever behavior is necessary to fulfill an unsatisfied drive. One way that the body elicits this behavioral motivation is by increasing physiological arousal. Arousal theory expands upon drive-reduction theory by taking into account levels of arousal as potential motivators. While drive-reduction theory focuses primarily on biological needs as motivators, arousal theory examines the influence of the neural transmitter dopamine as a motivator in the body.

2.4.2 – The Reward System

Arousal theory proposes that motivation is strongly linked to biological factors that control reward sensitivity and goal-driven behavior. Reward sensitivity is located in the mesolimbic dopamine system. Research shows that individual differences in neurological activity in this area can influence motivation for certain goal-driven behaviors that will elicit a reward or satisfy a craving. In this way, the reward system spurs physiological arousal, which motivates the individual to engage in whatever behavior is necessary to satisfy or relieve that arousal. For example, substance use is associated with overactivity in the dopamine system; depending on how strongly an individual’s brain interprets that as a “reward,” they may be more or less motivated to continue using that substance.

The Reward Center: Dopamine pathways in the brain play an important role in the regulation of reward, which, in turn, motivates behavior. Some of the most important parts of the brain’s reward center include the nucleus accumbens, the VTA, and the frontal cortex.

To show how the reward system works, Peter Milner and James Olds conducted an experiment in the early 1950s in which a rat had an electrode implanted in its brain so that its brain could be locally stimulated at any time. The rat was put in a box that contained two levers: one lever released food and water, and another lever delivered a brief stimulus to the reward center of the brain. At the beginning the rat wandered around the box and stepped on the levers by accident, but before long it was pressing the lever for the brief stimulus repeatedly. This behavior is called electrical self-stimulation. Sometimes, rats would become so involved in pressing the lever that they would forget about food and water, stopping only after collapsing from exhaustion. Electrical self-stimulation apparently provided a reward that reinforced the habit to press the lever. This study provided evidence that animals are motivated to perform behaviors that stimulate dopamine release in the reward center of the brain.

2.4.3 – Optimal Levels of Arousal

Theories of learning assert that there is an optimal level of arousal that we all try to maintain. If we are under-aroused, we become bored and will seek out some sort of stimulation. On the other hand, if we are over-aroused, we will engage in behaviors to reduce our arousal (Berlyne, 1960). Research shows that moderate arousal is generally best; when arousal is very high or very low, performance tends to suffer. Researchers Robert Yerkes and John Dodson discovered that the optimal arousal level depends on the complexity and difficulty of the task to be performed. This relationship is known as Yerkes-Dodson law, which holds that a simple task is performed best when arousal levels are relatively high and complex tasks are best performed when arousal levels are lower.

Optimal Arousal: The concept of optimal arousal in relation to performance on a task is depicted here. Performance is maximized at the optimal level of arousal, and it tapers off during under- and over-arousal. For easy tasks, a higher level of arousal generally increases performance; for harder tasks, a lower level of arousal is better.

Most students have experienced this need to maintain optimal levels of arousal over the course of their academic career. Think about how much stress students experience toward the end of spring semester—they feel overwhelmed with work and yearn for the rest and relaxation of summer break. Their arousal level is too high. Once they finish the semester, however, it doesn’t take too long before they begin to feel bored; their arousal level is too low. Generally, by the time fall semester starts, many students are quite happy to return to school. This is an example of how arousal theory works.

2.4.4 – Temperament and Motivation

Traits like impulsivity and sensation-seeking predispose people to engage in certain behaviors. These traits generally develop at a very young age (if not prenatally) as part of the individual’s temperament. Temperament is defined as an individual’s basic way of interacting and includes aspects like frustration tolerance (i.e., the ability to withstand frustrating situations without getting upset), delay of gratification, and inhibition vs. impulsivity. All of these factors affect the individual’s level of motivation to engage in certain behaviors. Fulfilling the impulse brings about a physiological reward similar to the rat pressing the button.

Some individuals are more sensation-seeking in that they have higher motivation to engage in arousing or physiologically stimulating activities. These individuals are more likely to engage in risky behaviors like driving fast, riding roller coasters, and other activities that get their adrenaline pumping. Likewise, someone who is very impulsive and uninhibited might be very motivated to go buy a car on a moment’s notice, as compared with someone who is very inhibited and has difficulty taking action.

2.5 – Incentive Theory of Motivation and Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

2.5.1 – Introduction

Motivation refers to a desire, need, or drive that contributes to and explains behavioral changes. In general, motivators provide some sort of incentive for completing a task. One definition of a motivator explains it as a force “acting either on or within a person to initiate behavior.” In addition to biological motives, motivations can be either intrinsic (arising from internal factors) or extrinsic (arising from external factors). Incentive theory argues that people are primarily extrinsically motivated—meaning that most motivations stem from extrinsic sources.

2.5.2 – Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation

Sweets as extrinsic motivators: Candy, cookies, and other treats can offer extrinsic motivation to engage in a particular behavior.

Intrinsically motivated behaviors are performed because of the sense of personal satisfaction that they bring. According to Deci (1971), these behaviors are defined as ones for which the reward is the satisfaction of performing the activity itself. Intrinsic motivation thus represents engagement in an activity for its own sake. For example, if you are in college because you enjoy learning new things and expanding your knowledge, you are intrinsically motivated to be there.

Extrinsically motivated behaviors, on the other hand, are performed in order to receive something from others or avoid certain negative outcomes. Theorists define extrinsic motivation as “engaging in an activity to obtain an outcome that is separable from the activity itself” (deCharms, 1968; Lepper & Greene, 1978). The extrinsic motivator is outside of, and acts on, the individual. Rewards—such as a job promotion, money, a sticker, or candy—are good examples of extrinsic motivators. Social and emotional incentives like praise and attention are also extrinsic motivators since they are bestowed on the individual by another person.

Extrinsic rewards are often used to impact someone who shows little interest in a potentially useful activity. For example, if a child shows no interest in memorizing new vocabulary words, her teacher might employ external rewards to get her to engage in and work hard on that activity. Similarly, a child might be motivated to do his chores by the extrinsic motivation that he will get his allowance afterward, rather than any intrinsic sense of accomplishment. Grades offer extrinsic motivation as well: students are generally motivated to do a better job if they know their performance will be judged (Stockdale & Williams, 2004).

2.5.3 – Incentive Theory and the Effects of Extrinsic Motivation

Incentive theory is based on the idea that behavior is primarily extrinsically motivated. It argues that people are more motivated to perform activities if they receive a reward afterward, rather than simply because they enjoy the activities themselves.

There is controversy concerning how and for how long motivators change behavior. For instance, some data suggest that intrinsic motivation is diminished when extrinsic motivation is given—a process known as the overjustification effect. If extrinsic incentives are used to stimulate behaviors that an individual already finds motivating (even without external reinforcement ), intrinsic motivation for that behavior may decrease over time. In those cases, extrinsic motivators can backfire: instead of serving as an incentive for the desired behavior, they undermine a previously held intrinsic motivation. This can lead to extinguishing the intrinsic motivation and creating a dependence on extrinsic rewards for continued performance (Deci et al., 1999).

A classic research study of intrinsic motivation illustrates this problem clearly. In the study, researchers asked university students to perform two activities—solving puzzles and writing newspaper headlines—that they already found interesting. Some of the students were paid to do these activities, the others were not. Under these conditions, the students who were paid were less likely to continue to engage in these activities after the experiment, while the students who were not paid were more likely to continue—even though both groups had been equally interested in the activities to begin with (Deci, 1971). The extrinsic reward of payment, it seemed, interfered with the intrinsic reward of the activity itself.

Other studies suggest that intrinsic motivation may not be so vulnerable to the effects of extrinsic reinforcements, and in fact, reinforcements such as verbal praise might actually increase intrinsic motivation (Arnold, 1976; Cameron & Pierce, 1994). Several factors may influence this: for one, physical reinforcements (such as money) have been shown to have more negative effects on intrinsic motivation than do verbal reinforcements (such as praise). Furthermore, the expectation of the extrinsic motivator by an individual is crucial: if the person expects to receive an extrinsic reward, then intrinsic motivation for the task tends to be reduced. If, however, there is no such expectation, and the extrinsic motivation is presented as a surprise, then intrinsic motivation for the task tends to persist (Deci et al., 1999).

Other studies provide evidence that the effectiveness of extrinsic motivators varies depending on factors like self-esteem, locus of control (the extent to which someone believes they can control events that affect them), self-efficacy (how someone judges their own competence to complete tasks and reach goals), and neuroticism (a personality trait characterized by anxiety, moodiness, worry, envy, and jealousy). For example, praise might have less effect on behavior for people with high self-esteem because they would not have the same need for approval that would make external praise reinforcing. On the other hand, someone who lacks confidence may work diligently for the sole purpose of seeking even a small amount of recognition.

2.6 – The Cognitive and Achievement Approaches to Motivation

Cognitive and achievement approaches to motivation examine how factors like achievement goals and cognitive dissonance influence motivation.

2.6.1 – Overview

Motivation describes the wants or needs that direct behavior toward a goal. When we refer to someone as being motivated, we mean that the person is trying hard to accomplish a certain task; having motivation is clearly important for someone to perform well. Both the achievement and cognitive approaches to motivation examine the various factors that influence our motivation.

2.6.2 – Achievement Motivation

According to the achievement approach to motivation, the need for achievement drives accomplishment and performance and thereby motivates our behavior. People may be motivated by different goals related to achievement, and each of these goals affect one’s motivation—and thereby behavior—differently. For instance, a student might be motivated to do well in an algebra class because it’s interesting and will be useful to her in later courses (i.e., to master the material); to get good grades (i.e., to perform well); or to avoid a poor or failing mark (i.e., to avoid performing poorly). These goals are not mutually exclusive, and may all be present at the same time.

2.6.3 – Mastery and Performance Goals

Mastery goals tend to be associated with the satisfaction of mastering something—in other words, gaining control, proficiency, comprehensive knowledge, or sufficient skill in a given area (such as mastering the art of cooking). Mastery goals are a form of intrinsic motivation (arising from internal forces) and have been found to be more effective than performance goals at sustaining students’ interest in a subject. In one review of research about learning goals, for example, students with primarily mastery orientations toward a course they were taking not only tended to express greater interest in the course, but also continued to express interest well beyond the official end of the course and to enroll in further courses in the same subject (Harackiewicz, et al., 2002; Wolters, 2004).

Performance goals, on the other hand, are extrinsically motivated (arising from external factors) and can have both positive and negative effects. Students with performance goals often tend to get higher grades than those who primarily express mastery goals, and this advantage is often seen both in the short term (with individual assignments) and in the long term (with overall grade point average when graduating). However, there is evidence that performance-oriented students do not actually learn material as deeply or permanently as students who are more mastery-oriented (Midgley, Kaplan, & Middleton, 2001).

A possible reason is that measures of performance, such as test scores, often reward relatively shallow memorization of information; in other words, information that is “crammed” before a test is only remembered in the short-term and often forgotten immediately after the test. Because the “performance” is over, there are no negative consequences for forgetting the information relatively quickly, and this can prevent performance-oriented students from processing the information more thoughtfully or deeply. Another possible reason is that by focusing on gaining recognition as the top performer in a peer group, a performance orientation encourages competition with peers. Giving and receiving help from classmates is thus not in the self-interest of a performance-oriented student, and the resulting isolation can limit the student’s learning.

2.6.4 – Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive approaches to motivation focus on how a person’s motivation is influenced by their cognitions or mental processes. Of particular interest is the role of cognitive dissonance on motivation. Cognitive dissonance occurs when a person experiences conflict, contradiction, or inconsistency in their cognitions. These contradictory cognitions may be attitudes, beliefs, or awareness of one’s behavior. Dissonance is strongest when a discrepancy has been noticed between one’s self-concept and one’s behavior. If you do something you are ashamed of or act in a way that is counter to an idea you have about yourself (for example, if you consider yourself an honest person but then lie to your parents when they ask about your future plans), you are likely to feel cognitive dissonance afterward.

Cognitive Dissonance and Smoking: Smoking commonly causes cognitive dissonance. One rationalizes the health risks by telling themselves they are going to die anyway.

The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance in their cognitions by either changing or justifying their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. How a person chooses to respond to the dissonance depends on the strength of various motivating factors. For example, smoking cigarettes increases the risk of cancer, which is threatening to the self-concept of the individual who smokes. When the smoker hears evidence suggesting that smoking might cause cancer (cognitive component), they can either choose to stop smoking (change the behavioral component) or choose to reject the causal link. Since smoking is physically addictive, most smokers choose to minimize their acknowledgement of the risk rather than change their behavior. The addiction is more motivating than the fear of possible long-term medical consequences, so the less-motivating idea is minimized and discounted. Most of us believe ourselves to be intelligent and rational, and the idea of doing something self-destructive causes dissonance. To reduce this uncomfortable tension, smokers might make excuses for themselves, such as “I’m going to die anyway, so it doesn’t matter.”

Another application of cognitive dissonance occurs in the case of effort justification. Dissonance is aroused whenever individuals voluntarily engage in an unpleasant activity to achieve some desired goal; this dissonance can be reduced by exaggerating the desirability of the goal. The more time, money, or effort someone invests in an activity, the more they will convince themselves that they made a wise choice and that their efforts were worth it. A child who has to work and save for a bicycle, for example, will value it more and take better care of it than if the bicycle was given as a gift, with no effort on the part of the child.

2.7 – Temporal Motivation Theory

2.7.1 – Introduction

Temporal motivation theory (TMT) is an integrative motivational theory developed by Piers Steel and Cornelius J. Konig. The theory emphasizes time as a critical motivational factor and focuses on the impact of deadlines on the allocation of attention to particular tasks. TMT argues that as a deadline for completing an activity nears, the perceived usefulness or benefit of that activity increases exponentially. TMT is particularly useful for understanding human behaviors like procrastination and goal setting.

TMT states that an individual’s motivation for a task can be derived from the following formula (in its simplest form):

Temporal Motivation: Temporal motivation theory argues that motivation is heavily influenced by time.

In this equation, motivation is the desire for a particular outcome. Expectancy, or self-efficacy, is the likelihood of success; value is the reward associated with the outcome; impulsiveness is the individual’s ability to withstand urges; and delay is the amount of time until the realization of the outcome (i.e., the deadline). The greater the individual’s expectancy for successfully completing the task, and the higher the value of the outcome associated with it, the higher the individual’s motivation will be. In contrast, both impulsivity and a greater amount of time before a deadline tend to reduce motivation.

2.7.2 – Examples of Temporal Motivation Theory

Consider a student who is given one month to study for a final exam. Throughout the month, the student has two options: studying or socializing. The student enjoys socializing but needs to achieve a good grade. At the beginning of the student’s study period (where there is a long delay before the deadline), the reward of studying is not immediate (and therefore has low value); therefore, the motivation to study is lower than the motivation to socialize. However, as the study period diminishes from several weeks to several days, the motivation to study will surpass the motivation to socialize.

Motivation over time: This graph illustrates how a student’s motivation tends to change over time: early in the semester he may be more motivated to socialize with friends; later in the semester, school work takes precedence.

Suppose the student really doesn’t understand the material and doesn’t feel confident that he will be able to grasp it in time for the exam (low self-efficacy, or expectancy). In addition, the student just got a new video game that he has been dying to play (high value) and has a hard time resisting the urge to play (high impulsiveness). With the exam still a month away (long delay), the student’s motivation to study is likely to be low, and he will play the video game instead. As the exam date approaches (shorter delay), his motivation to study may increase, leading him to put the video game away.

Originally published by Lumen Learning – Boundless Psychology under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.