Achievement Motivation

Updated on Dec 23, 2009

A quick survey of scientific literature and popular language would reveal that, while the word “motivation” has many meanings, fundamentally they refer to processes that impel an organism to act. Indeed, “motivation” comes from the Latin verb movere, which means “to move.” Hence, motivation refers to the processes that lead to the instigation, continuation, intensity, and quality of behavior. Accordingly, the term “achievement motivation” denotes processes leading to behavior that aims to achieve a certain criterion or standard. The criterion can be any goal or objective, formal or informal, set by an individual or by others, in any professional or leisure domain (e.g., school, sports, work, music, gardening, even social relationships and moral conduct), which provides a guide for evaluating success and failure.

Because achievement of standards is a fundamental human endeavor, achievement motivation has been an important domain in psychological inquiry. During the century that has passed since psychology became a scientific discipline in the late 1800s, numerous theories have been developed to explain the processes underlying achievement-oriented behavior. To a large degree, these various theories reflect the scientific zeitgeist of the time of their development, as well as the ideological beliefs of the researchers who developed them.


Early twentieth-century theories of motivation were strongly influenced by the general scientific developments of the late 19th century—especially Darwin's theory of evolution in biology and Helmholz's law of the conservation of energy in physics. These scientific ideas led to the conception of living organisms as types of machines, with motivation as the energy that fuels the machine (Weiner, 1990). The organism was thought to strive toward homeo-stasis, or an optimal state of no motion. Motivation for action was thought to derive from a deprivation that created a disruption to, or disequilibrium of, this homeo-static state. For example, deprivation of nourishment leads to motivation to seek food, and deprivation of interesting surroundings leads to motivation to seek stimulation. In these theories, the main explanatory concept—or motivational mechanism—was termed “Drive,” and it was thought to represent responses to such physiological deficits that aimed to restore homeostasis to the organism.

“Instincts,” “Needs,” and other related motivational concepts of the early twentieth century were similar in their emphasis on the general organismic and “energetic” character of behavior. Motivational theories of the period explained how the energy provided by the drive, instinct, or need combined with the organism's skill in a certain behavior (i.e., how much practice it had) and the relative value of the behavior's reward (e.g., going for a tasty rather than a bland food) to elicit and guide action (see, for example, Hull, 1952). Theorists of the time were faced with formidable challenges as they attempted to decide how many drives, instincts, and needs existed, how to measure them, and which were primary or secondary (for example, Murrey, 1938). As motivational systems were thought to operate according to similar principles in all organisms, much of the research during this era was conducted with animals. It was much easier to create deprivation and test instigation of behaviors aiming at different rewards among animals than among people: e.g., among rats in a maze.

It was ideological beliefs as much as empirical investigations and clinical understandings that led to developments in motivational theories during the first half of the 20th century. For example, the fundamental belief that scientific psychology should focus on observable behavior and avoid any reference to “mentalism” was the impetus for B. F. Skinner's (1938) version of behaviorism, which focused exclusively on observable reinforcements and punishments for explaining the likelihood of behavior. Another important ideological perspective—“Humanism”— led Abraham Maslow (1955) to distinguish the human motivation system from that of animals, and to arrange human needs according to a hierarchy in which general physiological needs were at the bottom and the unique human self-actualizing needs were at the top. And it was as much an ideological battle as a scientific one that framed the fierce debate about the role of cognition in motivation. “Drive” theorists, led by Hull (1952), held fast to the automatic machine metaphor, whereas the “Cognitivists,” led by Tolman (1932), argued that cognitive processes, such as expectations for a reward, must be included to explain variation in motivation.


The Hull-Tolman debate was decidedly won by the proponents of cognition and led to the inclusion of cognitive processes, such as expectancies for success and perceptions of its value, alongside drives and needs in the major theories of achievement motivation of the middle of the 20th century. Arguably, the most notable among these theories was that of David McClelland, John Atkinson, and their colleagues (McClelland, Atkinson, Clark & Lowell, 1953). For these researchers, achievement motivation was based in a personality characteristic that manifested as a dispositional need to improve and perform well according to a certain standard of excellence. This achievement motive, which the researchers labeled n Achievement, or nAch, was believed to form during the first years of life through parents' child-rearing practices: primarily, how early parents expected and rewarded—either tangibly or affectively with warmth and affection—independence in their children. McClelland and his colleagues hypothesized that these early experiences led to the propensity to experience a strong emotional arousal when cues in the environment were interpreted as an opportunity to achieve. Individuals were thought to differ from each other in the strength of this arousal and in the breadth of cues that elicited it.

As need for achievement was thought to be based in affective associations established in the first years of life, McClelland, Atkinson, and their colleagues believed that people were not conscious of this characteristic of their personality. Therefore, these researchers considered it inappropriate to assess people's need for achievement by asking them directly to talk about their motivation. Instead, they chose to assess this need indirectly through a projective instrument called the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) that purportedly elicits unconscious processes. In this instrument, people are asked to write a story describing the thoughts, emotions and behaviors of a person in an ambiguous picture or drawing (for example, a child sitting in front of a violin). The stories are then coded for achievement-related content including indicators of competition, accomplishments, and commitment to achieve. This technique, labeled the Picture Story Exercise (PSE), was used in numerous studies that tested the relations of nAch with various indicators of performance. The PSE was also used to investigate the way different environmental cues (e.g., success and failure feedback) were related to elicitation of the achievement need, and to investigate differences in level of nAch among people from different social groups (e.g., McClel-land, 1961). This latter work was rather controversial due to its stereotype-promoting implication that people from certain groups were inherently low in need for achievement. About a decade later, Maehr (1974) challenged this deterministic implication by highlighting the role of contexts and situations over that of personality in motivation and achievement.

It was not long before research, observations, and earlier notions of human motivation suggested that nAch was not the only achievement motive. Analyses of the PSE indicated that while some people had ample positive imagery related to achievement (and were identified as high on nAch) and others had very little (and were identified as low on nAch), many people actually had strong negative imagery associated with achievement. Researchers realized that a more complete description of the achievement motive would require supplementing the positive affective arousal triggered by the potential for achievement, or Hope of Success (HS), with the negative affective arousal triggered by the potential for failure, labeled Fear of Failure (FF). Similar to HS, FF was believed to be shaped during the early years of life through child-rearing practices that included punishment—again, either tangible or affective, such as love withdrawal—for failing to meet parents' expectations. Thus, in addition to outcomes associated with high HS, research during the middle of the 20th century paid much attention to the processes and outcomes associated with FF and its related construct of “Anxiety about Failure.” These two motives later came to represent an important distinction in the achievement motivation literature between approach and avoidance motivations (Elliot & Covington, 2001).

Much of the research during the 1950s and 1960s in the need for achievement framework relied on the PSE. However, while the PSE proved to be a successful measure of nAch, it had critics who questioned its reliability and validity. These criticisms led researchers to construct alternative measures to assess achievement needs: summated scales. This method involves giving a questionnaire to participants and asking them to rate their agreement with a number of statements describing characteristics or emotional reactions that define nAch and FF (e.g., “I will not be satisfied until I am best in my field of work,” Jackson, 1984). The ratings on the different items are then summed to provide a score indicative of the person's level of achievement motivation.

The construction of these easily used scales increased the number of studies relating self-reported nAch and FF to a wide range of outcomes. However, unlike the PSE, summated scales ask people directly about their motivation. Interestingly, research found that responses on the scales do not correlate with scores of nAch derived from the PSE. Moreover, scores from these two types of measures seem to be associated with different outcomes. Years later, these findings led McClelland and his colleagues (McClelland, Koestner & Weinberger, 1989) to argue that the two measures tap into two different motivational systems. They argued that the PSE indeed assesses nAch, which is the unconscious, or “implicit,” emotional arousal that is experienced in response to achievement cues. In contrast, the scales assess conscious cognitive perceptions and evaluations, which are self-attributed, or “explicit.” These explicit motives were thought to be influenced by social norms and expectations and were closer in meaning and psychological function to the other cognitive concepts that became dominant in motivational theories during the second half of the 20th century: expectancies for success, perceived value, perceptions of control, and goals.


In its theoretical formulation, Atkinson's (1957) and McClelland's (1985) theory of achievement motivation combined nAch with cognitive expectations of success and with the value of such success to a person. In fact, this theory was often referred to as the Expectancy-Value model of achievement motivation. The inclusion of cognitive processes as central concepts in the explanation of human behavior indicated a shift in the metaphor that guided motivation theory: from that of a machine to that of a rational decision-maker (Weiner, 1991). Atkinson held, for example, that people would rationally construct the value of success to be higher on difficult than on easy tasks. Similarly, he expected people to have lower expectancies for success on difficult than on easy tasks. Atkinson contended that these two perceptions interacted to result in a person's behavioral tendency to engage in a task, which was highest at moderate levels of task difficulty, and zero at both very low and very high levels. However, in Atkinson's theory, this relationship was still thought to be affected by people's unconscious need for achievement, and to be strong only for individuals with high need for achievement. For individuals with low need for achievement, the behavioral tendency to engage was expected to be low regardless of task difficulty.

The cognitive processes of expectancies for success and perceived value continued to be important motivational concepts throughout the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century. Indeed, the “cognitive revolution” in psychology in the middle of the 20th century, combined with criticisms of the nAch perspective, resulted both in increased attention to cognitive processes in motivation and in waning interest in the concepts of the past. Rather than striving toward homeostasis, humans were now considered to be continuously active, and motivation was thought of as the process underlying the behavioral choices that they made. But it was also becoming clear that people were not rational decision-makers (Weiner, 1991). People constructed different meanings for the same task that guided their perceptions, expectations, and valuing. These meanings were considered to be as much a result of social interactions as of personal dispositions. Thus, the focus during the last three decades of the 20th century was on people's subjective experiences of success and failure (created in the laboratory or in natural social settings such as schools), the attributions they made to these events, their evaluations of their competence, their expectations of success or failure in the future, and the goals they adopted for engagement.


Unlike the grand theories of the early decades of the 20th century, no single theory dominated the field of achievement motivation in its late decades. Instead, several theoretical frameworks developed side by side, employing various social-cognitive concepts and mechanisms. These different frameworks highlighted processes as applied to different units of analysis (e.g., the academic task at hand, the subject matter, academic learning, achievement generally, life goals); they emphasized the role of the individual, the environment, or their interaction; and they focused on somewhat different indicators of motivation (e.g., choice, persistence, quality of engagement, affective experience). Arguably, the dominant concepts of the last decades of the 20th century could be said to be Self and Goals. Self processes, including perceived competence, sense of control, and sense of autonomy, as well as the values and goals that defined the criteria of success and failure, appeared in one form or another in almost all the theoretical frameworks. These cognitive structures, which emphasize the agentic nature of behavior, seem to characterize the zeitgeist of motivational theorizing of this period. Along with the reliance on cognitive processes, the most common method of assessing motivational processes within these frameworks is summated scales, although other methods including interviews, observations, and experiments are employed as well.

Today, in the first decade of the 21st century, one can identify several directions in motivational theorizing. The cognitive concepts of Self and Goals continue to play a prominent role. However, current theorizing places greater weight on the social-cultural foundation of these cognitive processes (Volet & Järvelä, 2001). Thus, the importance of culture, the social context, and social relations and interactions to achievement motivation is receiving more and more attention. Another apparent trend is the integration of earlier motivational concepts, primarily achievement needs, with the later cognitive processes (Elliot & Thrash, 2001; for an integration of cognitive processes with humanistic needs see Deci & Ryan, 2000). Conceiving of implicit and explicit motives as complementary systems, and identifying corresponding neurological systems in the brain, is likely to instigate further research and theoretical developments (Schulth-eiss & Brunstein, 2005). Finally, emotional processes, which were rather neglected during the heavy emphasis on cognitive concepts, are receiving recognition as important energizing concepts in their own right, and research on the emotional nature of achievement motivation is beginning to bear interesting fruit (Linnenbrink, 2006).


In conclusion, motivational theories reflect the zeitgeist as well as the ideology of their authors. Different theories represent different metaphors of human action, emphasize different underlying processes, and focus on different outcomes. When attempting to understand student motivation, for example, educators and researchers should be critical consumers and consider the fit of a theory with their own values and needs. Such consideration should include the methods for assessing motivation, as these methods are inextricably embedded in theoretical assumptions. Finally, theoretical assumptions are tied with implications for motivational interventions. Motivational theories that emphasize stable personality characteristics are, by nature, more pessimistic with regard to interventions (although see McClelland, 1965, 1978). Arguably, educators might find most useful those theoretical perspectives that emphasize the role of the social environment in students' motivation. Among these, it seems, there is relative agreement: quality achievement motivation among all students is facilitated by caring and safe environments that promote meaningful relationships between and among adults and children, in which the emphasis is on personal development and collaboration rather than on competition and social comparison, in which students are encouraged to pursue their interests and to learn from mistakes, and in which feedback is geared towards learning and not merely evaluation (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002).


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