Psychology 101 – Motivation


Psychodynamic Perspective

animal fightThe psychodynamic perspective emphasises the biological basis of motivation. Humans are animals, and their motives reflect their animal instincts. According to Freud, humans, like other animals, are motivated by drives, internal tension states that build up until they are satisfied. He proposed two basic drives: sex and aggression. The sexual drive includes the desire for love, lust and intimacy, while the aggressive drive includes blatantly aggressive or sadistic impulses and also desires to control or manipulate other people and the environment. These drives, if repressed, may express themselves in subtle, socially acceptable and ways, such as enjoying violent movies, making sarcastic comments, or watching pornography. Due to societies taboos, we feel a constant tension in that we instinctually want to satisfy our animalistic urges, but cannot due to the taboos society have placed, and the guilt that we have been burdened with for even thinking of committing any such acts.

world war agressionInitially Freud had proposed self-preservation and sex as the two basic drives, much like the evolutionary concept of reproductive success, which includes survival and reproduction. His decision to change from self-preservation to aggression stemmed in part from living through World War I and witnessing the beginning of World War II in Europe. If aggression on such a massive scale kept breaking through in the most civilised societies, he reasoned, it must be a basic motivational force.

Psychodynamic views of motivation have advanced considerably since Freud’s death in 1939. In addition to sexual and aggressive desires, psychodynamic theorists now emphasise two other motives – the need for relatedness to others (independent of sexual desires) and the need for self-esteem (feeling good about oneself). Just as psychodynamic theorists have moved away from Freud’s dual-instinct theory, many have also moved away from his abstract notion of drives and have instead moved towards his theory of wish fulfillment and fear.

wishA wish is a representation of a desired state that is associated with emotion or arousal. Wishes range from the obvious and commonplace, such as the desire to get a good job, to the less obvious and unconscious, such as competitive desires that the individual would feel guilty to acknowledge – such as wishing to be more successful than your siblings due to childhood jealousy. Once a wish is activated, it may become temporarily deactivated or less intense.

A fear is a representation of an undesired state that is associated with unpleasant feelings. Fears also range from the obvious, such as fear of being punished, to the more abstract and repressed, such as being afraid that making mistakes will cause your parents to lose their love and respect for you. Freud believed that wish fulfillment and fear avoidance were the two primary unconscious drives that motivated our behaviour, he explored in his research how, because of their unconscious and repressed nature, they are often satisfied or played out in the dream state rather than the waking state. For those interested in learning more about psychodynamic dream theory I recommend reading Sigmund Freud’s book  Interpretation of Dreams, followed by Carl Jung’s book – Dreams.

unconscious freud

Freud’s Structure of Mind ‘Iceberg’ Model

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of psychodynamic theory of motivation is the view that motives can be unconscious. The child of an abusive alcoholic father, for example, may desperately want to avoid such men in her life, but continues to end up in relationships with abusive men resembling her father. Similarly, a child who grew up without the love and support of his mother, is likely to go out with a succession of women who act as ‘substitute moms’, and may very well end up marrying a woman who is controlling and motherly like. All of these things occur without the person being aware of it, as these are behaviours that are driven by unconscious motivations.

children drawing

Until recently, the evidence for unconscious motivation was largely clinical and anecdotal. However, laboratory evidence now supports the distinction between unconscious motives and the conscious motives people can self report. To study unconscious motives, researchers often use the Thematic Apperception Test (Morgan & Murray, 1935). The Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) consists of a series of ambiguous images which the participants are asked to make up a story for. Researchers then code the stories for motivational themes. The motives researchers code from people’s TAT stories are in fact highly predictive of their behaviour over time. Studies have found that the number of times an individual’s stories express themes of achievment predicts success in business over many years (McClelland et al., 1989). Similarly, the number of intimacy themes expressed in stories at age 30 predicts the quality of marital adjustment almost 20 years later (McAdams & Caillant, 1982).

Another way to measure motives is to simply ask someone what they are: ‘is achievement something you strive for?’ etc. However, studies with the TAT have shown that these sorts of questions are only beneficial in revealing one’s immediate motivations, and not their long term ones. The correlation between conscious, self reported motives and the inferred motives expressed in TAT stories is typically zero. People who demonstrate high achievement motivation in their stories, for example, don’t necessarily report high motivation to achieve. Although the discrepancy could simply mean one of the two assessment methods is invalid; in fact, each type of measure predicts different kinds of behaviour. For instance, achievement motivation assessed by the TAT is far more predictive of long term success than the same motive assessed by self report. However, if participants in the laboratory are told they must do well on a task they are about to undertake, self reported motivation is far more predictive of effort and success than TAT expressed motivation. Bow can both types of measure predict achievement behaviour but not predict each other?

David McClelland and his colleagues (1989) found a solution to this paradox, making a distinction similar to that between implicit and explicit memory. The TAT taps implicit (unconscious) motives, whereas self reports reflect explicit (conscious) motives. Implicit or unconscious motivation is expressed over time without conscious effort or awareness, whereas explicit or self reported motivation becomes activated when people focus conscious attention on tasks and goals. Conscious motives, which are more flexible and controllable, can override unconscious motives but often only temporarily, as anyone knows who has ever made and broken a New Years resolution. Further research suggests that the two kinds of motives, explicit and implicit, reflect different kinds of child-rearing experiences. For example, parental demands for control, mastery and autonomy in early life predict implicit need for achievement decades later. In contrast, parents explicit teaching about values predicts later explicit motives (Koestner, Zuroff, & Powers, 1991; McClelland & Pilon, 1983).

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10 thoughts on “Psychology 101 – Motivation

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  9. magnificent put up, very informative. I’m wondering why the other
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