Cognitive theories provide an alternative approach to motivation. One such theory is the expectancy-value theory, which views motivation as a joint function of the value people place on an outcome and the extent to which they believe they can achieve it. A considerable body of research has demonstrated the extent to which children’s beliefs about their abilities influence their motivation and subsequent achievement in school (Wigfield & Eccles, 2000). Students of similar actual ability levels often differ tremendously in their success depending on their perceived ability. Similarly, research finds that unemployed workers’ expectancies about their likelihood of success in job seeking, together with the value they place on work, predict the probability that they will hold a job a year later.
Cognitive approaches to motivation often focus on goals – desired outcomes established through social learning. A cognitive theory widely used by organisational psychologists interested in increasing worker motivation is goal-setting theory. The core proposition of goal-setting theory is that conscious goals regulate much of human behaviour, especially performance on work tasks. Goals represent desired outcomes that differ in some way from a person’s current situation. Goals activate old solutions that have worked in the past and encourage efforts to create new solutions if the old ones fail. Research using this theory suggests that maximum goal achieving performance only occurs if the following conditions are met:
- The person must experience a discrepancy between what they have and what they want
- Must define specific goals rather than general ones; goals must have a clear outline
- Must receive continual feedback, from others or from oneself, to allow the person to gauge their progresses towards their goal
- Must believe they have the ability to attain the goal
- Must set a high enough goal to remain motivated – the goal must not be met too easily or too quickly
- The person must have a high degree of personal commitment towards the goal.
Thirty years ago, Edward Deci began exploring a paradox that has engaged psychologists’ attention ever since. Thousands of studies from a behaviourist point of view have shown that rewarding people for performing behaviours increases the likelihood that they will perform them again in the future. But does reward increase people’s intrinsic motivation – their enjoyment of and interest in an activity for it’s own sake – or does it simply make them more likely to perform the behaviour when they can expect an external reward? This question has profound implications in school, work and parenting. Do we increase a child’s interest in mathematics by rewarding her for good grades or does rewarding her inadvertently extinguish her intristic interest in the subject?
Deci offered a controversial and counter intuitive prediction – that reward can actually stifle intrinsic pleasure in learning – a prediction largely supported by available data (Deci et al., 1999). The most recent version of the theory, called self-determination theory, suggests that people have innate needs – competence, relatedness to others and autonomy – and that intristic motivation flourishes when these needs are fulfilled rather than compromised. Rewards, as well as threats, tend to compromise people’s sense of autonomy. As a result, even though they may develop competence in a domain, they are likely to see the motivations as forced on them and therefore lose their intrinsic interest.
Therefore, when possible, parents who want to foster intrinsic motivation in their children are advised to praise and support their children’s interests and successes, but only by emphasising the child’s competence rather than compliance. So maybe you should think twice before forcing a musical instrument on your child, sure they might excel at it if started at a young age, but if they feel as though it wasn’t their idea, and they weren’t pursuing it out of their own self interest, they will quickly see it as a chore. Even later in life, when the child grows to accept the instrument (as an example) as their own passion, unconsciously they will still harbor the same childhood feelings towards it.
Although self-determination theory is a cognitive theory, it has drawn heavily from other perspectives. For example, Deci derived his theory that children have innate needs for challenge and mastery from the psychoanalyst Robert White (1959), and the theory is compatible with many humanistic approaches to personality that focus on innate needs for growth and self-development. Another cognitive approach on motivation that borrows from other psychological perspectives is the work of Jonathan Bargh on implicit motives, motives that can be activated and expressed outside of awareness. According to Bargh, just as well-learned cognitive procedures can become automatic and occur without conscious awareness, so too can well-learned goals. Drawing upon principles of association, Bargh argues that if an individual frequently chooses the same goal i a certain situation, the goal will become associated with the situation. As a result, whenever the situation arises, the goal state will be activated and guide behaviour, whether or not the person has any conscious of the intention.
In a series of studies, Bargh and his noble colleagues tested this hypothesis using priming techniques usually used to assess implicit memory (Bargh, 1997). They primed participants by having them make words out of scrambled letters, under one of two conditions. In one condition, the words were related to achievement (e.g strive); in the other, the words were related to affiliation (e.g friend). Next, they informed participants that the study was over, but asked if they could help an experimenter down the hall who was allegedly conducting an entirely separate experiment. In this ‘second experiment’, participants found themselves in a situation of motivational conflict.
Each participant was paired with an incompetent partner (Bargh’s experimenting buddies) and given a puzzle task on which they would receive a joint score reflecting their work as a team. Participants could therefore succeed by ignoring their incompetent partner’s suggestions, and possibly hurting their feelings, or they could be more interpersonally sensitive but receive a lower score. As predicted, participants who had been primed with achievement words significantly outperformed participants who had been primed with affiliation words. Through studies such as this one, Bargh suggests that motives, like other psychological processes, can be activated either implicitly or explicitly and can guide our behaviour even when we have no idea when or how they became activated.