Motivation is the force behind behaviour. It produces three related influences:

  1. Direction – our motivational state has a direct influence over the choice of our goals, and hence our behaviour.
  2. Energy – motivation provides the force behind our behavioural responses.
  3. Persistence – motivation determines the point at which we give up in attempts to achieve a particular goal.

One the one hand, motivation provides a basic ‘house-keeping’ function for our bodies – it directs us towards food when we are hungry, towards warmth when we are cold and towards safety when we are afraid. On the other hand, it also pushes us to strive to achieve ‘higher’ goals, to better ourselves, to make friends and to master our environment. It is generally accepted that there are three higher-order motive drives:

  1. Achievement – the drive to master skills and hence the environment.
  2. Affiliation – the drive to make friends and form intimate relationships.
  3. Autonomy and power – the drive to seek autonomy and freedom from control by others as well as achieving goals through direct control over others.

The clear link between all these forms of motivation is that they have a goal-setting function – they tell us what to do and they give us a means to do it. Alongside this, motivation produces a force that we experience consciously as a striving. We have a sense of wanting to achieve, to succeed but we don’t always know what or how! It’s likely that this urge is what drove our successful evolution. Individuals with a strong urge to keep pushing themselves would, on balance, be more likely to succeed and hence reproduce. If we take the three ‘primary’ motives above, it is easy to see how a striving to make friends, master our environment or establish our autonomy would give a distinct reproductive advantage in a complex social hierarchy.
It seems that there are individual differences in these motive strengths and so one person might be driven more by a striving to master the environment (achievement motive) whilst another is more likely to attempt to control others to do their bidding (power motive). Both approaches can be employed to successfully achieve goals. The difference is that each individual will chose a different route to their end – faced with a social challenge, one might attempt to use their knowledge and skills to demonstrate superior ability, whilst the other may simply rely on aggression or superiority to get their way. In this sense, motives make incentives salient – we are surrounded by many possible incentive stimuli, but we only react to certain classes. An individual high in affiliation motive (but low in others) will be drawn to social incentives, they will be more attentionally salient. The point here is that we don’t have to have clear inner goals, instead our system is primed to spot relevant opportunities in the world to satisfy our motive drives.  This draws attention to a final distinction:

Explicit Implicit
Consciously penetrable Not readily accessible to consciousness
Knowledge-based Action-based
Stimulus-stimulus associations Stimulus-response associations
Context free (abstract) Stimulus-bound
Reasoned Heuristic
Logical Intuitive
Limited capacity Unconstrained
Reflective Automatic
Effortful Effortless


  1. Implicit – Implicit motivation is responsible for much of our daily spontaneous behaviour and actually drives a considerable amount of valuable and productive human activity. For example, the implicit motive for achievement has been shown to predict entrepreneurial activity, the implicit motive for power has been shown to predict success in managerial positions, and the implicit motive for intimacy has been shown to predict marital happiness (McClelland et al., 1989). Thus, implicit motives are more than just animal instincts and capture the inner force behind the fulfilment of our goals and ambitions. Critically though, once established, behaviours become routines and can be difficult to change or stop. As such, any intervention which attempts to support an individual in bringing about positive change, has to focus on changing behaviour and the underlying implicit system.
  2. Explicit – these are our the conscious realisations of our motivations which are tempered by social norms, expectations and other cognitive control processes. Explicit motives predict our reactive behaviour – the goals we choose when faced with a specific explicit challenge. The value-action gap may reflect the difference between our explicit  and implicit motives.

Critically, implicit motives have been shown to be better predictors of behavioural trends over time (the recurrence of instances of spontaneous behaviour) and life outcomes (the result of accumulated spontaneous behaviour) than are conscious goals. For example, whilst the conscious motive to achieve is associated with setting higher aspirations and rating one’s own abilities as higher, the implicit achievement motive is more closely associated with the number of job-related activities spontaneously and successfully carried out (Heckhausen & Halisch,1986).

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