Motivation Research Paper Starter


As a topic of interest for well over a century, motivation has been studied from multiple angles - from a physiological, instinctual, behavioral, psychoanalytical, and humanistic perspective. As the field of psychology has become more cognitive in its orientation, however, so has research on motivation. The cognitive theories of motivation include: intrinsic motivation, goal theory, achievement motivation, attribution theory, and social cognitive theory. Their impact on achievement and learning will be discussed as well.

Keywords Attributions; Conditioning Theories; Drives; Expectancy-Value Theories; Extrinsic Motivation; Flow; Intrinsic Motivation; Learning Goals; Performance Goals; Self-Actualization; Self-Efficacy

Educational Psychology: Motivation


Educators and psychologists have been studying motivation for well over a century. As a result, it has been investigated from nearly every angle - physiological, behavioral, instinctual, psychoanalytical, and humanistic. In the last several decades, however, the field of psychology has become more cognitive in its orientation and so too has research on motivation. Learning theorists have begun to realize that motivation, like other mental processes such as attention, perception, and memory, is an important ingredient in the learning process and can help to explain both academic success and failure (Clinkenbeard, 2012). Thus, cognitive theorists define motivation as "the process whereby goal-directed activity is instigated and sustained" (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002; Schunk, 1996). Even though motivation is defined as a cognitive construct, it is nonetheless something that must be inferred from behavior. Because researchers can't see motivation, cognitivists use behavioral indicators - such as persistence, task choice, and self-reports - to better understand why people are motivated to act as they do.

Sigmund Freud's Theory

Freud developed a complex and intricate theory of personality, as well as a revolutionary method of therapy known as psychoanalysis. Although he didn't use the same terminology, his concept of trieb (a German word meaning moving force), is similar in meaning to motivation (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002). More specifically, Freud viewed motivation as psychic energy, part of a larger system of energy within an individual that he believed was closed; energy might change its form, but it never changes in amount. When a need develops, Freud proposed that energy was directed toward behaviors that satisfy a need; need reduction is pleasurable, he argued, because the build-up of energy is unpleasant. Although many times energy is aimed toward reducing a particular need, Freud also believed it was often repressed. Repressed energy doesn't disappear, however, but rather manifests itself in other ways. Thus, sexual energy might result in overeating.

The idea that individuals sometimes don't have access to thoughts that are influencing their behavior is arguably one of Freud's most significant contributions to our understanding of motivation, and is mirrored in current theories regarding implicit motives (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002). However, Freud relegated unconscious forces to unreasonable heights, many argue, and therefore disregarded the impact of cognitions and the environment; people do have conscious goals and values, the attainment of which is sometimes altered by forces beyond their control (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002).

Drive Theory

Clark Hull, who became a well-known American psychologist in the early twentieth century for his work on hypnosis, became even more well-known for his contribution to drive theory Approaching the question of motivation from a physiological perspective, Hull believed behavior was comprised of two elements: the actual performance, and the variables that determine performance (Beck, 2000). He identified these determining variables as habit strength - the strength of the association between a stimulus and response - and drive, or "the motivational construct energizing and prompting organisms into action" (Schunk, 1996, p. 285). Hull argued that drive results primarily from physiological deficits; if an organism is hungry, drive will activate the organism to behave in ways to reduce the hunger. When the deficit is eliminated, drive subsides. Because much of human behavior isn't directly related to survival needs, Hull introduced the notion of secondary reinforcers. Money, for example, is a secondary reinforcer because it allows individuals to buy shelter and food. Thus, secondary reinforcers, by being paired with reinforcers that satisfy primary physiological needs, influence behavior.

Even though Hull had tried to broaden his theory by introducing secondary reinforcement, many still felt it fell short, especially with regard to explaining human behavior (Schunk, 1996). As Schunk (1996) argues, there are many times people will ignore a primary need - like hunger - in order to attain a valued goal, such as winning a race or studying for an exam. In addition, people often strive for long-term goals, over a period of months or years; drive theory adds little insight to this type of behavior.

Conditioning Theories

In the early twentieth century - and largely in reaction to Freud's emphasis on the unconscious and unobservable - behaviorism came into prominence. Behaviorists explained all learning in terms of observable events - stimuli in the environment and the responses those stimuli elicited. Many behaviorists denied the existence of so-called mental events altogether; those who didn't nevertheless suggested they couldn't and shouldn't be studied. Thus, motivation is understood in terms of probability and frequency of behavior, not as a cognitive construct. Many theories explained human learning from a behaviorist point of view, but two theories in particular - classical conditioning theory and operant conditioning theory - became the hallmark theories.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning, first discovered by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, occurs when a previously neutral stimulus, upon being paired with an unconditioned stimulus, elicits a response. In the classic study, for example, Pavlov noticed that dogs salivated in the presence of food. Food served as an unconditioned stimulus that elicited an unconditioned response, salivation. When Pavlov then paired the sound of a bell (a neutral stimulus) with the presentation of the food, dogs soon learned to salivate in response to the bell alone. The bell then became a conditioned stimulus, the salivation in the presence of the bell a conditioned response. Schunk explains, "this is a passive view of motivation … because the motivational properties of the unconditioned stimulus are transmitted to the conditioned stimulus" (Schunk, 1996, p. 286). In other words, it is assumed to be an automatic process.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning also explains motivation in terms of relationships between stimuli and response. Proposed by B.F. Skinner, who is known as the father of behaviorism, operant conditioning explains behavior in terms of an antecedent stimulus, the behavior itself, and the consequences of behavior. The consequence - either positive or negative - determines the future likelihood the behavior will be exhibited again; a positive consequence increases the frequency of behavior, a negative consequence decreases the frequency of a behavior. According to Skinner, "operant conditioning requires no new principles to account for motivation. Motivated behavior is increased…by effective contingencies of reinforcement" (cited in Pintrich & Schunk, 2002, p. 28).

Reinforcements do influence behavior. According to cognitive psychologists, however, it is a person's beliefs or expectations about the reinforcements that influence behavior as much, if not more so, than the reinforcements themselves. By ignoring these cognitive processes - expectation, beliefs, and memory - behaviorists "offer an incomplete account of human motivation" (Schunk, 1996, p. 287).

Humanistic Theory

Abraham Maslow developed a humanistic theory of motivation; like many theorists before him, Maslow defined motivated behavior in relation to needs. Unlike drive theories, however, Maslow identified needs other than physiological or biological ones. He classified needs into a hierarchy of five categories:

• Physiological

• Safety

• Belongingness

• Esteem

• Self-actualization (Schunk, 1996)

According to Maslow, individuals must satisfy lower-order needs first, before attending to higher order needs. For example, a person is unlikely to worry about achievement or recognition from others - which are classified as esteem needs - if they cannot meet their physiological needs for food and water. Maslow was most interested in the highest level of the hierarchy, or self-actualization needs, defined as "ongoing actualization of potentials, capacities and talents, and fulfillment of mission…" (Maslow, 1968, as cited in Schunk, 1996, p. 290). He believed self-actualization could be achieved in a variety of ways - one person might become self-actualized through athletic achievement, for example, another through parenting - but that only 1% of the population ever achieved it completely.

While many of Maslow's principles apply to our understanding of motivation in general, his theory has been difficult to validate empirically; research on self-actualization in particular, has yielded mixed results (Schunk, 1996). In addition, operational definitions of deficiencies of needs have remained elusive; what one person experiences as a deficiency of belongingness needs, another may experience as an overabundance of love and connectedness.

Cognitive Theories of Motivation

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