Contemporary Motivational Theories Essay Sample

Contemporary Motivational Theories Pages
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In all kinds of industrial settings, motivation is admitted as one of the most prominent affective factors, and numerous studies in the literature have demonstrated the effect of it on training and learning process. Because of this remarkable effect, several theories on the definition of it and motivation types have been presented by the scholars. This study provides an overview regarding the contemporary motivational theories in industrial psychology and learning which have theoretically illustrated the research studies on motivation.

Keyword: Motivation, motivational theories.


Motivation has been the core of many studies up to now, and a significant number of researchers have been researching the term “motivation”. Hence, what does the term “motivation” mean? One technical definition describes motivation as the extent to which certain stimuli, objects, or events affect the occurrence or non-occurrence of the behaviour in question. Crookes and Schmidt (1991) describe motivation as the learner’s orientation in relation to the goal of learning.

According to Steers and Porter (1991), “Motivation can be characterized as needs or expectations, behavior, goals and some form of feedback”. Ryan and Deci (2000) state that “to be motivated means to be moved to do something”. Dornyei (2001) explains that human behaviour has two dimensions – direction and magnitude (intensity). Motivation is related to these concepts, and “it is responsible for the choice of a particular action and the effort expended on it and the persistence with it.” (Dornyei, 2001). He also states that “motivation explains why people decide to do something, how hard they are going to pursue it and how long they are willing to sustain the activity”.


Motivational psychologists investigate what triggers people to move and why people do what they do. More specifically motivational psychologists want to examine what the individual is doing, or the choice of behaviour; how long it takes before an individual initiates the activity, or the latency of behaviour; how hard the person actually works at activity, or the intensity of behaviour; how long the individual is willing to remain at the activity, or the persistence of behaviour; and what the individual is thinking and feeling while engaged in the activity, or the cognitions and emotional reactions accompanying the behaviour. In the past, drives, needs and reinforcements were put forward to explain the primary sources of motivation. However, current theories and research studies on motivation focus more on individuals’ beliefs, values and goals as the primary sources of motivation. The following are the most influential current theories in psychology.

2.1. Expectancy- Value Theory

Expectancy of success has been researched for the last decades, because it is for sure that “we do the things best if we believe we can succeed” (Dornyei, 2001). Expectancy of success is not sufficient if it is not followed by positive values. Expectancy of success and values are inseparable and they go hand in hand, so motivation theories based on these two terms are called “expectancy-value theories” (Dornyei, 2001). Modern expectancy-value theories are based on Atkinson’s (1957, 1964) original expectancy-value model in which “they link achievement performance, persistence, and choice most directly to individuals’ expectancy-related and task-value beliefs” (cited in Wigfield, Eccles, Roeser, and Schiefele, 2009). Expectancy-value theories depend on two key factors; the first one is the individual’s expectancy of success and the other is the value the individual gives on that task or activity.

Eccles-Parsons et al. (1983) define expectancies for success as “individuals’ beliefs about how well they will do on upcoming tasks, and ability beliefs about how good one is”, and values are defined “with respect to how important, interesting, or useful a given task or activity is to the individual (cited in Wigfield, Eccles, Roeser, and Schiefele, 2009). This theory suggests that individuals are interested in activities instrumental in attaining some valued outcome. “They emphasize cognition and the process by which an individual answers the question, “Should I expend the energy or not?” It emphasizes the individual’s expectation of getting a valued reward. In other words, “what behaviour is undertaken depends on the perceived likelihood that the behaviour will lead to the goal and the subjective value of that goal”. A good way to motivate learners is to increase their expectancies by consciously organizing the conditions in which they are more positive and hopeful.

2.2. Achievement Motivation Theory

Achievement motivation theory was initially uttered by Atkinson in 1957. This theory is based on the importance of individuals’ experiences and their struggles to achieve a good performance (Madrid, 2002). Atkinson’s theory focuses on three factors which are the need for achievement or the motive for success, the probability that one will be successful at the task, and the incentive value of success results in the tendency to approach an achievement related goal. Atkinson points out that “engagement in achievement-oriented behaviours is a function not only of the motivation for success, but also of the probability of success (expectancy) and the incentive value of success”. Achievement motivation is determined by conflicting approach and avoidance tendencies. Expectancy of success, value given to a specific task and need for achievements are the positive influences. As for need for achievement, Dornyei (1994) emphasizes that, “Need for achievement is a relatively stable personality trait that is considered to affect a person’s behaviour in every facet of life, including language learning”. Individuals with a high need for achievement are interested in excellence for its own sake, tend to initiate achievement activities, work with heightened intensity at these tasks, and persist in the face of failure”. The opposite side of this success is the failure. An individual experiencing a failure before tends to avoid failure by selecting easy tasks so that he/she cannot fail (Oxford and Shearin, 1994).

2.3. Self-Efficacy Theory

Self-efficacy theory was introduced by Bandura (1977) who defines self-efficacy as individuals confidence in their ability to organize and execute a given course of action to solve a problem or accomplish a task”, and also as people’s beliefs about their capabilities to exercise control over events that affect their lives. Pintrich et al. (1991) also define self-efficacy as a self-appraisal of one’s ability to perform a task, and it contains one’s belief and confidence in one to achieve that specific task. “Eccles and Wigfield, (2002) proposes that individuals’ self-efficacy expectations are the major determinants of goal setting, activity choices, willingness to expend effort, and persistence.” Their sense of efficacy affects their selection of activities, and how much effort they give.

Attribution of past accomplishments is crucial in developing self-efficacy. When individuals develop a strong sense of efficacy, the effect of failure on the individual decreases. Bandura (1997) identifies self-efficacy as a multidimensional construct which can differ in strength (i.e.positive or negative), generality (i.e. relating to many situations or only a few), and level of difficulty (i.e. feeling efficacious for all tasks or only easy tasks). Oxford and Shearin (1994) emphasize that most people do not have an idea in their self-efficacy at first; hence, employers should help them develop a strong sense of self-efficacy by giving meaningful and achievable tasks. Dornyei (2001) states that people whose self-efficacy is high are more self-confident than people whose self-efficacy is low. These self-confident individuals approach threatening situations with confidence instead of giving up, and even if they face failure they maintain a task and heighten and sustain effort. On the other hand, people whose self-efficacy is low in a given domain take challenging tasks as personal threats; they concentrate more on their inabilities or deficiencies than how to achieve this task in a successful manner. As a result, they tend to give up the task easily instead of making effort because they easily lose their faith in their capabilities.

2.4. Attribution Theory

Attribution theory was first mentioned in the writings of Frits Helder (1958) and the subsequent contributions of Harold Kelly (1967) and Bernard Weiner (1985) and it was largely influential in the 1980s. Dornyei (2003) points out that “our past actions, and particularly the way we interpret our past successes and failures, determine our current and future behaviour”. This theory relates individual’s achievements to past experiences through causal attributions as the mediating link. According to Graham and Weiner (1996), causal search determines the causes of success and failure. When unexpected and important events such as a low grade given to an employee results in failure, this search is most likely to be activated. Weiner (1986) identifies three dimensions of causality: locus, stability, and controllability. “Locus refers to the location of a cause as internal or external to the individual; stability connotes the invariance of a cause over time; and controllability concerns the extent to which the cause is subject to volitional alteration. Hence, for example, aptitude is considered internal to the actor, stable over time, and uncontrollable, whereas chance or luck typically is external to the actor, variable and also uncontrollable.”

The locus dimension of causality determines if self-esteem and pride are influenced after success or failure. Internal attributions cause enhanced self-esteem following success and decreased self-esteem following failure, whereas external causes do not influence success or failure. The stability dimension of causality affects subjective expectancy of success. If an individual ascribes a positive outcome to a stable cause such as aptitude, then this individual expects success. Similarly, negative outcomes attributed to stable causes result in inferences that future success is unlikely. The controllability dimension of causality is related to a lot of effects with motivational implications such as anger, guilt, and pity.

On controllability dimension of causality, Graham and Weiner (1996) state that, “Specifically, if one is prevented from success by factors that others could have controlled (e.g., noise, bias), then anger is experienced; guilt is felt when one fails or breaks a social contract because of internally controllable causes, such as lack of effort of negligence; pity and sympathy are expressed toward others who do not attain their goals because of uncontrollable causes, including lack of ability or a physical handicap; and shame (humiliation, embarrassment) is a dominant reaction when one fails because of internally controllable causes such as low ability. Williams and Burden (1997) state that this theory is not interested in all the experiences an individual goes through, but how this individual perceives these experiences. Oxford and Shearin (1994) state that “higher satisfaction occurs when success is self-attributed than when success is attributed to external factors. When people believe themselves rather than luck, fate, the employees have created the successful performance, they are happier with themselves”.

2.5. Self-Worth Theory

Self-worth theory was developed by Covington (1992), and according to Covington (1992), having a sense of personal value and worth, especially when an individual takes risks and fails, is a vital human need. Covington, states that the ability of self-perception is the key element in self-worth theory. Dornyei (2003) states that people get very motivated to behave in ways that increase their sense of personal value and worth. When these perceptions are threatened, they struggle desperately to protect them, and as a result, lots of face-saving behaviours come up. When individuals face some problems, they make use of certain face-saving strategies to protect themselves. Covington has listed a number of self-protective strategies which students make use of in order to maintain positive academic self-regard. He also states that as a group these strategies look for changing the personal reasons of outside factors beyond the individual’s control.

The strategies can be;

a) Setting unrealistic goals, so that the failure can be attributed as a result of task difficulty instead of lack of ability.
b) Using self-handicapping techniques such as not studying.
c) excuse-giving that is, attributing failure to uncontrollable factors such as poor training.

2.6. Goal Setting Theory
Goal setting theory was mainly developed by Locke and Latham (1990). This theory implies that people must have goals to act because purposes trigger actions, and there should be goals and these goals should be pursued by choice for action to take place. Locke and Latham (2002) state that a goal is the aim of an action or task that a person consciously desires to achieve or obtain. Goal setting involves the conscious process of setting levels of performance so as to get desired results. O’Neil and Drillings (1994) stress that “the goal setting theory was based on the premise that much human action is purposeful, in that it is directed by conscious goals”. Dornyei (2002) states that goal-setting is mainly an easy planning process that all individuals can learn without difficulty. The important thing is that learners should be shown how to break tasks and assignments into smaller tasks, and how to determine due dates to these tasks and assignments, and finally how to have a control on their own learning process.

The goal-setting theory suggests that there are three basic features of goals which cause them to differ: difficulty, specificity and commitment. The research studies till now have indicated that these different features have certain relations among themselves which help individuals’ motivation increase: * The more difficult the goal, the greater the achievement. * The more specific or explicit the goal, the more precisely performance is regulated. * The highest performance is yielded when the goals are both specific and difficult. * Commitment to goals is most critical when they are specific and difficult (commitment to general or vague goals is easy since general goals do not require much commitment and vague ones can be “manipulated” to accommodate low performance). * High commitment to goals is attained when the individual is convinced that the goal is important and is attainable. * Goals serve a directive function as they direct attention and effort toward goal-relevant activities and away from irrelevant activities. * Goals have an energising function and they help individuals regulate their effort to the difficulty of the task. * Goals positively affect persistence.

* Goals affect action indirectly by leading to the arousal, discovery, and /or use of task-relevant knowledge and strategies. * Lastly, goal-setting gives employers a chance to look at the tasks from reluctant and demotivated employees eyes and create an immediate purpose in their eyes.

2.7. Goal-orientation Theory
Goal-orientation theory was introduced by Ames (1992). According to Ames, goals serve as a mechanism or a filter which determine the process and interpretation of the incoming information. Unlike the goal-setting theory, the goal-orientation theory was developed in a classroom context to give an explanation to employees’ learning and performance. Goal-orientation is related to the perception of the causes why he/she is interested in learning a task. According to goal-orientation theory, individual’s performance and his/her accepted goals are interrelated. There are two types of goal-orientation: performance and mastery (or learning) orientations. Learners having the first orientation are mainly interested in looking good and capable, whereas those having the second are more interested in enhancing their knowledge and are being capable. Dweck (1985) states that “with performance goals, an individual aims to look smart, whereas with the learning goals, the individual aims to become smarter”. 2.8. Self-Determination Theory

The self-determination theory, which was introduced by Deci and Ryan (2000), is one of the most influential theories in motivational psychology. According to the theory, “to be self-determining means to experience a sense of choice in initiating and regulating one’s own actions”. “Self-determination is seen as a prerequisite for any behaviour to be intrinsically rewarding” (Dornyei, 1994). The theory divides motivation into intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation, and also a state of a motivation. Intrinsic motivation is the result of an interest in the subject. In other words, it is the joy and satisfaction gained from doing something. Extrinsic motivation results from some extrinsic rewards such as good grades or to avoid punishment. Studies conducted by Deci et al. (1991) indicate that “self-determination leads to desired educational outcomes that help both individuals and society”. Amotivation is the state of lacking intention to act. It is owing to the fact that the individual does not value the activity (Ryan, 1985), does not feel competent (Deci, 1975), or thinks that the activity is unfeasible (Seligman, 1975). In the light of this theory, extrinsic motivation has been classified into four types between self-determined and controlled forms of motivation. These are;

a) External regulation: External regulation refers to the least self-determined form of extrinsic motivation. External regulation refers to the actions resulting from external sources such as rewards and threats. It is the least self-determined form of extrinsic motivation. b) Introjected regulation: It refers to the activities an individual performs owing to some external reasons, however in this type; the individual has incorporated this external pressure into the self. An example for this can be the individuals who learn a language just not to be ashamed in front of the other people.

This is still not a self-determined activity, because the individual is still affected by more external reasons than internal ones, and it is still quite controlling because people perform such actions with the feeling of pressure in order to avoid guilt and anxiety to attain ego enhancements or pride. c) Identification: It represents more autonomous form of extrinsic motivation. It occurs when the individual thinks that it is beneficial for her / him, and accepts the process. The individual identifies and appreciates the importance of a behaviour and accepts his / her self-regulation. d) Integration: It is the most autonomous and self-determined form of extrinsic motivation. It has certain common points with intrinsic motivation. However, it is still extrinsic since “behaviour motivated by integrated regulation is done for its instrumental value with respect to some outcome that is separate from the behaviour”. 2.9. Theory of Planned Behaviour

The theory of planned behaviour, which was proposed by Icek Ajzen (1988), is a theory about the link between attitudes and behaviour. It is designed to predict and explain human behaviour in specific contexts. Ajzen’s model uses three variables that are behaviour, subjective norms and perceived behavioural control, and Ajzen asserts that these variables have a direct influence on behavioural intention. Ajzen states that “intentions to perform behaviours of different kinds can be predicted with high accuracy from attitudes toward the behaviour, subjective norms, and the perceived behavioural control; and these intentions, together with perceptions of behavioural control, account for considerable variance in actual behaviour”. In other words, theory of planned behaviour states that individual behaviour is shaped by behavioural intentions in which behavioural intentions are a function of an individual’s attitude toward the behaviour, the subjective norms surrounding the performance of the behaviour, and the individual’s perception of the ease with which the behaviour can be performed (behavioural control). Attitude toward the behaviour is an individual’s positive or negative feelings about performing behaviour.

An evaluation of one’s beliefs related to the results arising from behaviour and an assessment of the desirability of these results shape the attitude toward the behaviour. Subjective norm can be defined as whether the individual perceives the behaviour as important and whether this behaviour should be performed by this individual. Perceived behavioural control is an individual’s perception of difficulty of performing a behavior. Ajzen states that perceived behavioural control is related to available resources, skills, and opportunities and also the individual’s own perception towards the importance of achieving the results.

Intentions play a great role for the individual when performing a given behaviour. Intentions are considered to affect motivational factors that have an effect on a behaviour, and intentions show how hard people are eager to try, of how much effort they are planning to exert so as to perform the behaviour. In general terms, the stronger the intention to engage in behaviour, the more likely should be its performance. Dornyei (2001) states that “our personal likes and dislikes, i.e. attitudes, play an important role in deciding what we will do and what we won’t”. He also states that attitudes have a direct effect on behaviour since an individual’s attitude towards a target affect the overall pattern of the person’s responses to the target. An individual’s subjective norms (perceived social pressure) and perceived behavioural control (perceived ease or difficulty of performing behaviour) modify their effect.


Various theories of Motivation, discussed above, have various applications in management practices. In applying motivation theories, managers should take into consideration how an individual reacts to his work which is a function of fit among;

a) Individual’s personality characteristics need patterns, values, and ability. b) Characteristics of job such as nature of challenge it offers, the autonomy in performing the job, and the use of skills in performing the job.

Thus, in applying motivation theories at workplace, both intrinsic and extrinsic aspects of the job must be considered. Intrinsic factors are directly related to the contents of a job while extrinsic factors are related to the context or environment in which the job is performed. Thus, motivation theories help in designing reward system, empowering employees, improving quality of work life, and work design.


* Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behaviour. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50, 179-211. * Crookes, G. and Schmidt, R.W. (1991). Motivation: Reopening the research agenda. Language Learning, 41, 469 – 512. * Steers, R.M., and Porter, L.W. (1991). Motivation and work behavior. New York: McGraw-Hill.Inc. Lincoln. * Ryan, R.M., and Deci, E.L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25 (1), 54-67. * Dornyei, Z. (2001). Motivation in action: Toward a process oriented conceptualization of student motivation. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 70, 519- 538.

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