Friday, February 18, 2011

Motivation Theories: The Skinny

Motivation is cool. So cool that I decided to write a dissertation about it (to be written--still waiting on the motivation and the data). Turns out that a lot of people think motivation is cool, and you can get paid lots of money for helping people motivate other people (not in the Chris Farley motivational speaker kind of way, but in the Daniel Pink book Drive kind of way). Anyway, in the last 60ish years, tons of psychologists have theorized about human motivation. Most of these theories are social-cognitive theories, which all assume that human behavior can be shaped through social interactions with others (directly and vicariously). So, in my mind, six main social-cognitive theories stand out above the rest. Undoubtedly, there is much overlap among these theories, but I want to give you a quick overview of them. 

Self-Determination Theory: The quality and quantity of human motivation (and development) is contingent on the environments’ capacity to promote or discourage three innate, universal needs: (1) autonomy, (2) competence, and (3) relatedness. So, if you feel able, connected to others, and self-endorse your actions, you are more likely to persist, be enthusiastic, and thrive. 
Contributors/big names in the field: Deci, Ryan, Vallerand, Skinner
Note: This is my favorite theory! And I'm facebook friends with Richard Ryan (jealous?).

Value-Expectancy TheoryIn short, the expectations of success, the utility of the task, and the value ascribed to an activity shapes your motivational behavior.  If you think you can succeed, the task can provide you with something meaningful, and you value participating in the task, then you'll probably choose to engage, persist, master the activity, and be enthusiastic to do it.
Contributors/big names in the field: Eccles Wigfield, Tonks
Note: For those considering Educational Psychology, know one thing. Whenever you try to contribute something novel to the field, check Eccles first. She's probably already done it. If she hasn't, someone else from the University of Michigan has.

Attribution Theory: Motivation behaviors are a result of self-made attributions about the locus of causation of an event.  Attributions can be internal (I did poorly on that test, because I didn't study hard enough) or external (I did poorly on that test, because my teacher tried to fail us).  One's attributions can be shaped by ability, effort, luck, or difficulty of a task.
Contributors/big names in the field: Weiner, Jones, Heider
Note: Weiner is pronounced like one who complains a lot. Sorry kids. If it makes you feel better, I learned this by being corrected at a national conference. Consider yourself warned.

Achievement Goal Theory: In short, this theory outlines two types of goals: performance and mastery goals. Performance goals (less adaptive) are aims to appear accomplished, whereas mastery goals (more adaptive) are aims to become competent at the task. 
Contributors: Maehr, Ames
Note: Carol Dweck's theory of self-views of intelligence (which is so hot right now) aligns achievement goal theory.

Self-Worth Theory: Achievement goals adopted by people whether mastery or performance oriented, reflect a life-long struggle to establish and maintain a sense of worth and belonging in a society that values competency and doing well. The focus of this theory is-- how do people define success?
Contributors: Covington
Note: Marty Covington is at UC Berkeley. I took his course, but other than that, I have never seen the guy on campus. Word is that if you want to get in touch with him, he'll give you a mailing address to an island where he resides. I'm not kidding. 

Self-Efficacy Theory: Your perception of your abilities shapes your behavior (and your environment).  These ability perceptions come from actual performance (striking out in baseball), vicarious experiences (the batter before you striking out), forms of social persuasion ("This pitcher throws 95 mph and is being recruited by the Yankees. Good luck.") and physiological indices (rapid heart rate, buckling knees). As you can see, I have some residual feelings of low-efficacy from a past life. Anyway, this theory acknowledges that the values and outcome expectations held by the actor play a role too. 
Contributors/big names in the field: Bandura, Schunk, Pajares
Note: In reflecting about all of these theories, efficacy is a consistent thread throughout. Take home message: you perceptions of your own ability matter.

So, what did you learn? Leo hasn't resolved his baseball failings, Eccles has researched everything, none of these theorists has made as much money as Daniel Pink, and efficacy is very, hecka, wicked, muy important.  And you have a starting point and a few heuristics to think about what motivates you, what motivates others, and why those questions likely have different answers. 


marc said...

Where does hedonism fit in? Aren't some people just motivated by feeling physically good and satisfied, however short-lived those feelings may be? Not necessarily a personal commentary - just wondering.

leo said...

Great point. In fact, the first motivation theories revolved around tissue-based drives (e.g., food, water, sex). Early drive theorists include Hull, Spencer, and some little-known guy named Freud. And while there is certainly relevance for human behavior, these drives do not explain humans' tendency explore, play, and socialize (even in the face of tissue-based deficits)... So hedonism-- the pleasure principle is still at play, but it doesn't paint the whole picture.

An alternative explanation from a neurological perspective is that the same chemical activity in the brain can occur with from physical satisfaction (e.g., eating ice cream) and from social satisfaction (e.g., a supportive phone call from a father). Here again, physical pleasure is important but only one piece of the puzzle.