4 Theories of motivation
Here we present two key theories of motivation, which have been used to understand how people are motivated:
- need achievement theory (McClelland, 1961; Atkinson, 1974)
- Weiner’s model of attribution (Weiner, 1985).
Need achievement theory (McClelland, 1961; Atkinson, 1974)
The aim of need achievement theory is to explain why certain individuals are more motivated to achieve than others. It is based on two psychological principles: the motive of an individual to achieve success and the motive of an individual to avoid failure. This theory is described as an approach-avoidance model because an individual will be motivated either (a) to take part in (approach) or (b) to withdraw from (avoid) a situation, based on the strength of the two forces in relation to each other. If an individual’s intrinsic motivation to take part is stronger than their fear of failure, they will engage in a task. However, if their fear of failure is stronger than their intrinsic motivation to take part, they will either avoid or withdraw from the task. This theory can be said to be a trait-centred approach because achievement motivation is a personality trait (a relatively consistent way of behaving). However, this personality trait may not be the only factor affecting motivation. Another important factor is the role the situation plays in terms of the ‘probability of success’ and the ‘incentive for success’. An individual who has low intrinsic motivation may become motivated to be successful if the probability of success is high and the reward on offer for success is great.
This theory is able to explain why individuals who are ‘high achievers’ choose difficult or challenging tasks (they will see value in their success in difficult challenges). It also explains that a ‘low achiever’ will choose easier tasks because they are less likely to fail and are therefore usually guaranteed success. For example, a high achiever may choose a task such as assessing the success of their organisation’s marketing and then developing a new strategy to increase income by 10 per cent. A low achiever would avoid a high-risk activity like this and might just settle for leaving things as they are.
Weiner’s attribution theory (Weiner, 1985)
Attribution theory focuses on how people explain their success or failure. Humans seek to understand the reasons for why things happen and an attribution is the reason we give for a particular outcome. We may also make an attribution to the behaviour we see in people or teams around us. Attributions can be categorised in two ways: firstly, whether they are stable (permanent) or unstable (constantly changing); and secondly, whether they are internal (inside us) or external (outside us). An internal factor is seen as being within our control and an external factor as outside of our control. These factors combined mean that a success or a failure can be attributed to either ability or effort, or task difficulty or luck. In Table 3 these are presented as four quadrants, with an example of each attribution.
Table 3 Attribution categories
|Stable||Ability ‘It comes naturally to me’||Task difficulty ‘She was just too good for me to compete against’|
|Unstable||Effort ‘I worked really hard today’||Luck ‘I just didn’t get the rub of the green today’|
The attributions that we make are important because they will affect motivation in an indirect way. They will have an effect on our self-confidence and thus on our expectations of future success. An attribution can be either ego enhancing, to make us feel better about ourselves, or ego protective, to stop ourselves feeling bad. A positive attribution to internal factors will enhance the ego and one attributed to task difficulty may serve to protect the ego. In turn, our level of self-confidence will influence motivation because the more confidence of success we show, the greater our motivation will become. For example, a tennis player who keeps winning can become more driven and seek out competition rather than avoid it.
Consider the following statements made by managers or players regarding their team’s performance and the outcome they achieved. Draw a table, like Table 4 below, and place each statement into one of the four quadrants in the table. Also consider why the managers or players have made these particular attributions.
- ‘I have a belief in the potential of my team but we have to cope with the level of intensity that international opposition play at.’
- ‘It was a performance which turned ugly and we had to dig out a hard-fought win.’
- ‘I hit my second shot just where I wanted it but a gust got it in the air and it didn’t really have a chance in the end.’
- ‘We were clearly the better team and I have no doubt we can beat anyone on our day.’
Table 4 Assigning attributions
Table 5 Attributions assigned
|Stable||Ability ‘I have a belief in the potential of my team but we have to cope with the level of intensity that international opposition play at.’||Task difficulty ‘We were clearly the better team and I have no doubt we can beat anyone on our day.’|
|Unstable||Effort ‘It was a performance which turned ugly and we had to dig out a hard-fought win.’||Luck ‘I hit my second shot just where I wanted it but a gust got it in the air and it didn’t really have a chance in the end.’|
We can see how the attributions assigned to effort and luck would help to protect the individual’s ego and maintain their motivation for the future. The attribution to luck places the locus of responsibility outside of the individual and thus they can protect their ego and their self-confidence will not be affected. You may ask whether these attributions are accurate or are being used to mask the truth.
The first statement makes reference to two categories of attribution, because the ‘intensity that international opposition play at’ could refer to task difficulty, while ‘belief in the potential of my team’ refers to ability. When you are in a sport and fitness environment, listen to the attributions people make in order to account for their behaviour and the outcomes they achieve.