Achievement Motivation

views updated Jun 11 2018

Achievement Motivation


Diagnostic tests

Social origins and consequences

Developmental factors

Problems and unresolved issues


Achievement motivation, also referred to as the need for achievement (and abbreviated n Achievement), is an important determinant of aspiration, effort, and persistence when an individual expects that his performance will be evaluated in relation to some standard of excellence. Such behavior is called achievement-oriented.

Motivation to achieve is instigated when an individual knows that he is responsible for the outcome of some venture, when he anticipates explicit knowledge of results that will define his success or failure, and when there is some degree of risk, i.e., some uncertainty about the outcome of his effort. The goal of achievement-oriented activity is to succeed, to perform well in relation to a standard of excellence or in comparison with others who are competitors (McClelland 1961, chapter 6; Atkinson 1964).

The topic is obviously of practical importance in education and industry. It is related to traditional sociological interest in the determinants of mobility; and through McClelland’s (1961) study of its relationship to entrepreneurial activity, it has become a matter of considerable interest to economists, historians, and others concerned with economic development.

Individuals differ in their strength of motive to achieve, and various activities differ in the challenge they pose and the opportunity they offer for expression of this motive. Thus, both personality and environmental factors must be considered in accounting for the strength of motivation to achieve in a particular person facing a particular challenge in a particular situation. The very same person may be more strongly motivated at one time than at another time, even though in most situations he may generally tend to be more interested in achieving than other people.

Basic problems. The basic psychological problems are (a) the dynamics of achievement motivation, i.e., the nature of the joint influence of personality and environmental challenge on the strength of motivation and the consequent effects on behavior; (b) the refinement of diagnostic tests of achievement motivation; and (c) the development of individual differences in achievement motive. Of more general interest is the analysis of social origins and social consequences of achievement motivation.

History of study. The concept of achievement motivation has its antecedents in earlier psychological studies conducted under a variety of different rubrics, particularly “success and failure” (Sears 1942), “ego-involvement” (Allport 1943), and “level of aspiration” (Lewin et al. 1944). At that time, there was little basis for a meaningful integration of knowledge because research findings were not anchored by the use of a common method for assessment of motivation. This is less true today as a result of a methodological innovation shortly after World War ii: namely, the experimental validation of a method of measuring achievement motivation, followed by systematic use of this new tool in behavioral and societal studies (McClelland et al. 1953). McClelland and his co-workers combined the traditional clinical assumption that human motives are freely expressed in imagination with procedures developed within experimental psychology for manipulation of strength of motivation. It was demonstrated, first with hunger, then with concern over achievement and other human motives, that the motivational state of an individual can be diagnosed by means of content analysis of his fantasy or imaginative behavior (Atkinson 1958) as revealed, for example, in the thematic apperception test [seeProjective methods, article onthe thematic apperception test].

Achievement imagery in fantasy takes the form of thoughts about performing some task well, of sometimes being blocked, of trying various means of achieving, and of experiencing joy or sadness contingent upon the outcome of the effort. The particular diagnostic signs of achievement motivation were identified by experimental fact. The results of validating experiments have been replicated in other social groups and societies. Together these experimental findings specify what is counted in an imaginative protocol to yield the n Achievement score, an assessment of the strength of achievement motivation (McClelland et al. 1953, chapter 4; McClelland et al. 1958).

To study antecedents or effects of individual differences, the method of content analysis is applied to analysis of imaginative stories written by different persons under standard conditions. The same method has been successfully applied to stories obtained in a national survey study (Veroff et al. 1960), to folk tales, to children’s readers, and to other samples of the imaginative behavior of whole societies (McClelland 1961).

Individuals who produce the most achievement imagery in a standard assessment situation are assumed to be the most highly motivated to achieve. Societies whose literary documents are saturated with achievement imagery are likewise assumed to be more concerned about achievement than those in which this type of imagery is less prevalent.


Current theory, which is an elaboration, with greater specification, of an earlier theory of level of aspiration (Lewin et al. 1944), provides the simplest organization of facts about achievement-oriented activity and an explicit guide for further study (Atkinson 1957; 1964; Atkinson & Feather 1966).

Achievement-oriented behavior is conceived as invariably influenced by the strength of an individual’s tendency to achieve success and, in addition, by his tendency to avoid failure, which is also inherent in situations involving evaluation of performance. Attention is also drawn to the determinative role of extrinsic motivational tendencies on what appear to be achievement-oriented activities. An extrinsic tendency is one produced by some motive or incentive other than achievement per se (e.g., money, social approval, compliance with authority) and that is not inherent in an achievement-related situation.

The tendency to achieve success in a particular activity (Ts) is conceived as jointly determined by the strength of a general motive to achieve success (Ms), considered a relatively stable characteristic of an individual’s personality, and two factors that define the challenge of the immediate task and situation; namely, the strength of expectancy or

subjective probability of success in the activity (Ps) and the relative attractiveness or incentive value of success in that particular activity (Is). It is assumed that the three variables combine multiplicatively to determine the strength of the tendency to achieve, i.e., Ts = Ms × Ps × Is.

The earlier generalization that the attractiveness of success is directly proportional to the difficulty of a task (Lewin et al. 1944) is now specified more exactly: I8= 1 – Ps. Following from the two assumptions are the general implications shown graphically in Figure 1. The tendency to achieve, which determines interest and the impetus to undertake an activity with the intention of doing well, is generally stronger when the motive to achieve (Ms) is strong and when the task is one of intermediate difficulty or risk. Persons who score high in n Achievement normally perform at a higher level in achievement-oriented activities, tend to prefer intermediate degree of risk (or difficulty) and/or to have a moderately high, i.e., realistic, level of aspiration, and tend to be more persistent in achievement-oriented activity when confronted with opportunities to undertake other kinds of activity instead (Atkinson 1964; Atkinson & Feather 1966; McClelland 1961, chapter 6).

A further assumption is that success increases and failure decreases the expectancy of success (Ps) at the same and similar activities; this helps to account for effects of success and failure on changes in motivation that are expressed in subsequent aspiration and persistence. Typically, individuals who are strongly motivated to achieve set a moderately high level of aspiration (or prefer an intermediate risk), raising the aspiration level somewhat following success and lowering it some-what after failure. Since success increases Ps at the same and similar activities, and Is = 1 – Ps, the effect of success at a moderately difficult task is a change in subsequent motivation so that the tendency to undertake the same activity again is weakened and the tendency to undertake an activity that initially appeared a little more difficult is strengthened. The point at which Ps = .50 shifts upward at the next most difficult task. A change in the opposite direction occurs following failure at the initial activity. Hence a moderately high aspiration is lowered following failure.

As is suggested in Figure 1, continual success or continual failure will ultimately produce loss of achievement interest in an activity without implying any change, however, in the strength of the individual’s general motive to achieve (Ms). The immediate effect of failure at a task that is considered relatively easy to begin with is a heightening of interest before the gradual decline. Men who are strong in n Achievement are considerably more persistent in the face of repeated failure when their initial expectation of success (Ps) is quite high than when it is initially very low (Feather 1961). Often, because he has more of a history of success behind him, the person who is strongly motivated to achieve approaches a novel or some-what ambiguous situation more optimistically than others (Atkinson & Feather 1966).

The occupational ladder, which gives one measure of a man’s success in life, is a hierarchy of achievement-oriented activities that represent potential goals for most people, ordered in terms of the difficulty of attainment. The principle Is = 1 – Ps applies to the prestige normally accorded persons in different occupations. Vocational aspiration, effort, and persistence displayed in the instrumental activities of getting an education and work are expressions of achievement motivation. Men who are highly motivated to achieve set moderate, realistic vocational aspirations; often perform better in school; attain a higher level of education; and—if they come from a low-status background —are more upwardly mobile than men who are weak in n Achievement (Crockett 1962). Men who are motivated to achieve may be especially attracted to careers in business because they offer opportunity to take calculated risks with explicit knowledge of results (i.e., profits and losses) and provide one of the few channels that an individual of low-status background can enter without higher education and still have a realistic chance of moving up to a higher status. Available evidence sup-ports the view that business leaders and managers, particularly in sales and marketing, are relatively strong in n Achievement (McClelland 1961, chapter 7).

Avoidance of failure

The analysis of determinants of achievement-oriented activity is more complete when effects of the tendency to avoid failure and the role of extrinsic sources of motivation are also taken into account. The motive to avoid failure (Maf), conceived as a disposition to be anxious about failure, has been reliably assessed by tests that require a person to report the symptoms of anxiety he normally experiences in test situations and, more recently, by thematic content analysis (Heckhausen 1963). This motive, combining multiplicatively with the subjective probability of failure (P) and the negative incentive value of failure (I), produces a tendency to avoid undertaking an activity when there is an expectancy of failure. The easier the task the greater is the pain of an expected failure, i.e., I = – Ps. Hence the implications concerning determinants of the strength of the tendency to avoid failure parallel those shown in Figure 1 for the positive tendency. But the behavioral implications are diametrically opposite. The tendency to avoid failure produces a resistance to achievement-oriented activity that must be overcome, if not by a stronger tendency to achieve then by some extrinsic motivational tendency. When an individual’s motive to achieve exceeds his motive to avoid failure (Ms > Maf), then the tendency to achieve will dominate in the assumed algebraic summation of the conflicting tendencies and the patterns of achievement-oriented activity already described will occur. When the motive to avoid failure is stronger (Maf > Ms), as is more likely when n Achievement is weak, all interest in achievement-oriented activity should be inhibited and resistance should be greatest for tasks that represent moderate risks where Ps is near .50. The resistance is often overcome by extrinsic sources of positive motivation, e.g., the tendency to gain approval by doing what is expected. This is more easily accomplished where resistance is weakest, namely, where the probability of success is either very high or very low. Thus both a very high level of aspiration (corresponding to preference for an activity where Ps is very low) and a very low level of aspiration are construed as symptomatic of a relatively strong motive to avoid failure and not of a strong motive to achieve. These extreme levels of aspiration occur most frequently among men who are weak in n Achievement and strong in anxiety. Nonadaptive behavioral trends, including atypical changes in aspiration following success and failure and dogged persistence when there is little obvious chance to succeed (Feather 1961), are among the other empirically confirmed consequences of a strong tendency to avoid failure that follow from the logic of the theory (Atkinson & Feather 1966; Moulton 1965).

Diagnostic tests

Several other methods yield results comparable to those obtained with the imaginative n Achievement score. One method requires an individual to explain the actions of another person, which have been described to him in a short statement. The explanations impute feelings and intentions to the person and are coded as if they were imaginative stories. To avoid some limitations of verbal measures a technique for analysis of characteristics of an individual’s graphic expression has been developed. It discriminates reliably between persons who score high and low on imaginative n Achievement in the United States, and it has been employed with meaningful results in studies of children’s designs and in inferring achievement motivation from designs on artifacts of ancient civilizations (Atkinson 1958; McClelland 1961).

The current theory and evidence also suggest that the slope of an individual’s ratings of the attractiveness of occupations in relation to increasing level of status (difficulty) may be developed as a useful measure of achievement motivation (Atkinson 1964; Atkinson & Feather 1966).

There has been a series of efforts to develop a simpler and more direct test of the strength of achievement motive by employing an individual’s self-descriptive statements or endorsements of particular beliefs and attitudes implying strong achievement motivation; but none has produced an adequate substitute for the indirect, projective method of assessing motivation. This is partly because self-descriptive activities are much more complexly determined social actions than is commonly imagined and partly because intuitive misconceptions of how an achievement motive should be expressed in behavior have influenced the content of test items that have been tried (Atkinson 1958; McClelland 1961, p. 331).

The peculiar advantage of imaginative behavior seems to lie in the fact that the individual is less constrained than in his other actions and is able to spell out the nature of his inner concerns in his spontaneous imagery without being aware that he is doing it.

Social origins and consequences

McClelland’s hypothesis that “achievement motivation is in part responsible for economic growth” (1961, p. 36) has provided the main impetus and conceptual framework for studies concerning development and social consequences of n Achievement. Preliminary evidence that n Achievement in middle-class American boys is related to parental encouragement of self-reliance and mastery early in childhood (Winterbottom 1958) suggested that Max Weber’s hypothesis concerning the influence on the development of capitalism of the Protestant ethic, which encouraged this kind of training, might be considered a specific instance of the more general hypothesis. McClelland’s view is that innovating and risk-taking activities of entrepreneurs are to be viewed as expressions of a strong motive to achieve and not merely a profit motive as traditionally assumed [1961, pp. 233–237; see Tawney; Weber, Max].

Of the several kinds of evidence he presents, the most novel and impressive, particularly as a methodological innovation, are studies that relate societal indexes of n Achievement obtained from content analysis of folk tales, children’s readers, and other literary documents to indexes of the society’s economic development. This illustrates how psychological techniques that have undergone considerable experimental validation can be applied in comparative studies of society and in the analysis of historical trends (McClelland 1961, chapters 3–4).

The n Achievement scores obtained from content analysis of folk tales from preliterate societies are positively correlated with early achievement training (p. 343) and with presence of some full-time entrepreneurs in the society (p. 66). Similar n Achievement scores obtained from readers employed to teach children in 21 different societies in 1925 are positively correlated with an index of economic growth in those societies between 1929 and 1950 (p. 92). Another set of n Achievement scores obtained from readers in 39 societies in 1950 does not relate to the economic gain between 1929 and 1950 but does predict the gain by those societies between 1952 and 1958 (p. 100). Furthermore, the average n Achievement scores obtained from children’s readers is significantly higher in 1950.

The amount of achievement imagery in children’s readers is considered a sensitive barometer of the concern felt in the country for economic development. Since this imagery is correlated with economic growth in the very near future, it would appear that it is mostly a reflection of the mood and motivation of the adult population at the time (pp. 101–102).

The question of whether a rise in n Achievement precedes economic growth and a fall in n Achievement precedes a decline of a society is treated by motivational content analysis of representative samples of imaginative literature from the same society at critical periods in its history. David Berlew selected samples of the literature of ancient Greece from the periods of growth (900–475 B.C.), climax (475–362 B.C.), and decline (362–100 B.C.) and analyzed them for achievement imagery. The level of n Achievement was highest in the period preceding the rise in Greek civilization, lower during the period of climax, and lower still after the decline. An index of n Achievement obtained from analysis of graphic expression in designs on Grecian vases during the same time periods yielded equivalent results (pp. 108–129). A similar analysis of the economic growth and decline of Spain between 1200 and 1730 produced the same general findings.

A study of England from Tudor times to the industrial revolution (1500–1833) included a more complete sampling of time periods. It produced the remarkable result that “motivational changes precede the economic ones by 30–50 years” (McClelland 1961, p. 138), as shown in Figure 2. An even closer relationship is shown between n Achievement level in children’s readers in the United States from 1800 to 1950 and a measure of technological innovation. Both level of n Achievement in readers and number of patents granted (relative to population) rise steadily from 1800 to 1890 and decline thereafter (p. 150). McClelland believes that facts of this sort should serve to direct the attention of social scientists “away from an exclusive concern with the external events in history to the ’internal’ psychological concerns that in the long run determine what happens in history” (p. 105).

Developmental factors

Individual differences in n Achievement have been detected as early as the age of five, and the evidence, although very sparse, is nevertheless consistent with the prevailing view that strength of achievement motive is probably relatively stable from childhood to adulthood (Kagan & MOSS 1962; Crandall 1963). Studies of how parents rear their children—based on reports of parents, ethnographic data, observational studies of parent-child interactions, and longitudinal studies—have begun to identify some key factors in development of the achievement motive.

The weight of evidence suggests that in child rearing early emphasis on self-reliant mastery tends to promote the development of n Achievement, provided it is not merely an expression of authoritarianism or rejection of the child by parents who are pushing it to look out for itself so that it will be less burdensome to them. Exposure to high standards of excellence, accompanied by warmth and encouragement of independent effort, should occur neither too early for the child’s abilities nor too late in childhood for him to internalize the standards as his own (McClelland 1961, p. 345; Veroff 1965). Equally important is the opportunity given a child to practice self-reliant behavior and to exercise his talents without domination by his father (Strodtbeck 1958; Rosen & D’Andrade 1959). Also important is opportunity for practice in mechanical and constructional activities. This provides early practice in independent mastery with very explicit knowledge of results (Kagan & Moss 1962, chapter 5).

Major political, economic, social, and other environmental forces—even climate—may have an important impact on motivation insofar as they tend to modify one or another of these key factors (or others yet to be discovered). McClelland stresses this point with conjectures about the indirect and unintended effects of slavery and war on n Achievement in a society. The institution of slavery (e.g., in ancient Greece) means that children will be very dependent upon the slave responsible for their early training and will not be exposed to the high standards and demands for self-reliant mastery that might have been transmitted directly by early parental supervision. Thus a society’s n Achievement may be lost in the process of training the next generation. And war, by taking a potentially domineering father out of the home during the critical years, may contribute to the growth of n Achievement by giving the child an opportunity for self-reliant mastery.

In American society, n Achievement is strongest in the middle class and among Jews. The social values of these groups tend to encourage some favorable combination of the key factors early in life. A representative survey of the United States showed that high n Achievement is more prevalent among Catholics than Protestants (Veroff et al. 1962); but this result, like most other comparisons between ethnic, religious, and racial groups, must be qualified in terms of what social classes are being compared, the degree of assimilation to the culture, whether religious orientation is strong, and other factors (McClelland 1961, chapter 9; Veroff et al. 1962).

Problems and unresolved issues

Growth in knowledge depends more upon coherence than mere accumulation of empirical facts. Studies that employ ad hoc tests and methods of unproven validity to assess achievement motivation still evade systematic discussion. Future study must combine substantial effort to improve valid methods and to develop better ones with awareness that common use of the best available tools holds greater promise than the use of unproven techniques.

Future study must include systematic assessment of individual differences in anxiety and its effects and must identify the effects of so-called extrinsic motivational tendencies and the conditions under which they operate (Atkinson & Feather 1966). At issue is the question of whether the characteristics of behavior referred to as “entrepreneurial” necessarily require a strong motive to achieve, rooted in a particular kind of early background, or whether manipulation of incentives that appeal to other motives (e.g., money or social approval) might, under specified conditions, produce equivalent behavioral effects.

The major unresolved interpretive issue concerning different levels of n Achievement in various individuals, social groups, and historical periods is that of disentangling the effects of basic personality structure from effects of the immediate environment. McClelland (1961) has emphasized that changes in the societal level of n Achievement are mediated by changes in the way children are reared in the family, that is, by changes in basic personality. But theory concerning the dynamics of achievement motivation gives equal emphasis— not the disproportionate emphasis of the traditional environmentalist but equal emphasis—to the im-mediate environmental challenge (Ps) as a determinant of the level of n Achievement in stressing the interaction of personality and environmental influences (Atkinson & Feather 1966). This perplexing issue is treated candidly by Veroff et al. (1960) in relation to national survey results in the United States showing that the level of n Achievement is higher among more educated people, among professionals and managers, and among men aged 21–24 and 35–50 than among others. Do these results, and others like them, refer to differences in the strength of general and enduring dispositions of personality that are rooted in differences in early childhood training? Their answer:

Facing frankly the paucity of evidence concerning dispositional versus situational factors in motivation, and their interactions, we can see that any one of the following arguments might be pursued in the interpretation of obtained differences between certain social groups. (1) The obtained difference is attributable to differences in enduring personality dispositions acquired early in life. (2) The obtained difference is the consequence of a change in personality disposition induced by important situational factors later in life. (3) The obtained difference is a consequence of expo-sure to differential temporary situational pressures affecting the level of aroused motivation regardless of equivalence in underlying personality disposition. (Veroff et al. 1960, p. 22)

This basic theoretical issue is tied to one of more immediate practical importance: Can an individual’s need for achievement be strengthened? McClelland (1965) has begun to mobilize the whole armament of psychological techniques for producing a change in behavior or attitude in an effort to devise a program for training a willing adult to be more highly motivated to achieve. His approach leaves open the question of what, in current theoretical terms, is being changed: the motive, the perception of the achievement-relatedness of some activities not previously viewed in that light (see also Veroff 1965), the extent to which other motives will be engaged in achievement-oriented behavior, or, perhaps, the strength of an individual’s expectancy of success in certain activities.

From the viewpoint of current theory, the strength of an individual’s subjective probability of success in some activity deserves special emphasis and systematic study as a manipulable motivational variable. It approximates what Arnold Toynbee has called “environmental challenge.” Motivational effects of homogeneous ability grouping of children in schools have been meaningfully treated as the result of changing the strength of a student’s subjective probability of success in schoolwork, relative to his peers, from what it would normally be in a more heterogeneous class-room situation. In the traditional, heterogeneous classroom in the United States, the very bright child often faces a prospect that is too easy to be challenging to him, and the very dull child often faces one that is so hopelessly difficult for him that he cannot become either enthusiastically or anxiously involved. When students are grouped according to ability, everybody faces an intermediate achievement risk (Atkinson & Feather 1966).

Perhaps the revolution of rising expectations in underdeveloped countries and among American Negroes, for whom opportunity has finally arrived, should be conceived in terms of a change in the environment from one that had previously defined any effort to achieve as a relatively hopeless prospect to one that now presents a moderate, realistic challenge to whatever latent motives to achieve there are in people who answer its call.

John W. Atkinson

[Other relevant material may be found inDrives, article onacquired drives; Entrepreneurship; Fantasy; Motivation; Social mobility.]


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achievement motivation

views updated May 29 2018

achievement motivation Defined as the need to perform well or the striving for success, and evidenced by persistence and effort in the face of difficulties, achievement motivation is regarded as a central human motivation. Psychologist David McClelland (The Achieving Society, 1961) measured it by analysing respondents' narratives; rather more controversially he hypothesized that it was related to economic growth. Lack of achievement motivation was, for a period during the 1950s and 1960s, a fashionable explanation for lack of economic development in the Third World—notably among certain American modernization theorists. This thesis was much criticized by dependency theorists such as Andre Gunder Frank (Latin America: Underdevelopment or Revolution 1969). See also WORK ETHIC.