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Motivation Research Paper

Motivation is the basic drive for all of our actions. Motivation refers to the dynamics of our behavior, which involves our needs, desires, and ambitions in life. Achievement motivation is based on reaching success and achieving all of our aspirations in life. Achievement goals can affect the way a person performs a task and represent a desire to show competence (Harackiewicz, Barron, Carter, Lehto, & Elliot, ). These basic physiological motivational drives affect our natural behavior in different environments. Most of our goals are incentive-based and can vary from basic hunger to the need for love and the establishment of mature sexual relationships. Our motives for achievement can range from biological needs to satisfying creative desires or realizing success in competitive ventures. Motivation is important because it affects our lives everyday. All of our behaviors, actions, thoughts, and beliefs are influenced by our inner drive to succeed.

Implicit and Self-Attributed Motives

Motivational researchers share the view that achievement behavior is an interaction between situational variables and the individual subject's motivation to achieve. Two motives are directly involved in the prediction of behavior, implicit and explicit. Implicit motives are spontaneous impulses to act, also known as task performances, and are aroused through incentives inherent to the task. Explicit motives are expressed through deliberate choices and more often stimulated for extrinsic reasons. Also, individuals with strong implicit needs to achieve goals set higher internal standards, whereas others tend to adhere to the societal norms. These two motives often work together to determine the behavior of the individual in direction and passion (Brunstein & Maier, ).

Explicit and implicit motivations have a compelling impact on behavior. Task behaviors are accelerated in the face of a challenge through implicit motivation, making performing a task in the most effective manner the primary goal. A person with a strong implicit drive will feel pleasure from achieving a goal in the most efficient way. The increase in effort and overcoming the challenge by mastering the task satisfies the individual. However, the explicit motives are built around a person's self-image. This type of motivation shapes a person's behavior based on their own self-view and can influence their choices and responses from outside cues. The primary agent for this type of motivation is perception or perceived ability. Many theorists still can not agree whether achievement is based on mastering one's skills or striving to promote a better self-image (Brunstein & Maier, ). Most research is still unable to determine whether these different types of motivation would result in different behaviors in the same environment.

The Hierarchal Model of Achievement Motivation

Achievement motivation has been conceptualized in many different ways. Our understanding of achievement-relevant effects, cognition, and behavior has improved. Despite being similar in nature, many achievement motivation approaches have been developed separately, suggesting that most achievement motivation theories are in concordance with one another instead of competing. Motivational researchers have sought to promote a hierarchal model of approach and avoidance achievement motivation by incorporating the two prominent theories: the achievement motive approach and the achievement goal approach. Achievement motives include the need for achievement and the fear of failure. These are the more predominant motives that direct our behavior toward positive and negative outcomes. Achievement goals are viewed as more solid cognitive representations pointing individuals toward a specific end. There are three types of these achievement goals: a performance-approach goal, a performance-avoidance goal, and a mastery goal. A performance-approach goal is focused on attaining competence relative to others, a performance-avoidance goal is focused on avoiding incompetence relative to others, and a mastery goal is focused on the development of competence itself and of task mastery. Achievement motives can be seen as direct predictors of achievement-relevant circumstances. Thus, achievement motives are said to have an indirect or distal influence, and achievement goals are said to have a direct or proximal influence on achievement-relevant outcomes (Elliot & McGregor, ).

These motives and goals are viewed as working together to regulate achievement behavior. The hierarchal model presents achievement goals as predictors for performance outcomes. The model is being further conceptualized to include more approaches to achievement motivation. One weakness of the model is that it does not provide an account of the processes responsible for the link between achievement goals and performance. As this model is enhanced, it becomes more useful in predicting the outcomes of achievement-based behaviors (Elliot & McGregor, ).

Achievement Goals and Information Seeking

Theorists have proposed that people's achievement goals affect their achievement-related attitudes and behaviors. Two different types of achievement-related attitudes include task-involvement and ego-involvement. Task-involvement is a motivational state in which a person's main goal is to acquire skills and understanding whereas the main goal in ego-involvement is to demonstrate superior abilities (Butler, ). One example of an activity where someone strives to attain mastery and demonstrate superior ability is schoolwork. However situational cues, such as the person's environment or surroundings, can affect the success of achieving a goal at any time.

Studies confirm that a task-involvement activity more often results in challenging attributions and increasing effort (typically in activities providing an opportunity to learn and develop competence) than in an ego-involvement activity. Intrinsic motivation, which is defined as striving to engage in activity because of self-satisfaction, is more prevalent when a person is engaged in task-involved activities. When people are more ego-involved, they tend to take on a different conception of their ability, where differences in ability limit the effectiveness of effort. Ego-involved individuals are driven to succeed by outperforming others, and their feelings of success depend on maintaining self-worth and avoiding failure. On the other hand, task-involved individuals tend to adopt their conception of ability as learning through applied effort (Butler, ). Therefore less able individuals will feel more successful as long as they can satisfy an effort to learn and improve. Ego-invoking conditions tend to produce less favorable responses to failure and difficulty.

Competence moderated attitudes and behaviors are more prevalent in ego-involved activities than task-involved. Achievement does not moderate intrinsic motivation in task-involving conditions, in which people of all levels of ability could learn to improve. In ego-involving conditions, intrinsic motivation was higher among higher achievers who demonstrated superior ability than in low achievers who could not demonstrate such ability (Butler, ). These different attitudes toward achievement can also be compared in information seeking.

Task- and ego-involving settings bring about different goals, conceptions of ability, and responses to difficulty. They also promote different patterns of information seeking. People of all levels of ability will seek information relevant to attaining their goal of improving mastery in task-involving conditions. However they need to seek information regarding self-appraisal to gain a better understanding of their self-capacity (Butler, ). On the other hand people in ego-involving settings are more interested in information about social comparisons, assessing their ability relative to others.

Self-Worth Theory in Achievement Motivation

Self-worth theory states that in certain situations students stand to gain by not trying and deliberately withholding effort. If poor performance is a threat to a person's sense of self-esteem, this lack of effort is likely to occur. This most often occurs after an experience of failure. Failure threatens self-estimates of ability and creates uncertainty about an individual's capability to perform well on a subsequent basis. If the following performance turns out to be poor, then doubts concerning ability are confirmed. Self-worth theory states that one way to avoid threat to self-esteem is by withdrawing effort. Withdrawing effort allows failure to be attributed to lack of effort rather than low ability which reduces overall risk to the value of one's self-esteem. When poor performance is likely to reflect poor ability, a situation of high threat is created to the individual's intellect. On the other hand, if an excuse allows poor performance to be attributed to a factor unrelated to ability, the threat to self-esteem and one's intellect is much lower (Thompson, Davidson, & Barber, ).

A study was conducted on students involving unsolvable problems to test some assumptions of the self-worth theory regarding motivation and effort. The results showed that there was no evidence of reported reduction of effort despite poorer performance when the tasks were described as moderately difficult as compared with tasks much higher in difficulty. The possibility was raised that low effort may not be responsible for the poor performance of students in situations which create threats to self-esteem. Two suggestions were made, one being that students might unconsciously withdraw effort, and the other stating that students may reduce effort as a result of withdrawing commitment from the problem. Regardless of which suggestion is true, self-worth theory assumes that individuals have a reduced tendency to take personal responsibility for failure (Thompson, Davidson, & Barber, ).

Avoidance Achievement Motivation

In everyday life, individuals strive to be competent in their activities. In the past decade, many theorists have utilized a social-cognitive achievement goal approach in accounting for individuals striving for competence. An achievement goal is commonly defined as the purpose for engaging in a task, and the specific type of goal taken on creates a framework for how individuals experience their achievement pursuits. Achievement goal theorists commonly identify two distinct ideas toward competence: a performance goal focused on demonstrating ability when compared to others, and a mastery goal focused on the development of competence and task mastery. Performance goals are hypothesized to produce vulnerability to certain response patterns in achievement settings such as preferences for easy tasks, withdrawal of effort in the face of failure, and decreased task enjoyment. Mastery goals can lead to a motivational pattern that creates a preference for moderately challenging tasks, persistence in the face of failure, and increased enjoyment of tasks (Elliot & Church, ).

Most achievement goal theorists conceptualize both performance and mastery goals as the "approach" forms of motivation. Existing classical achievement motivation theorists claimed that activities are emphasized and oriented toward attaining success or avoiding failure, while the achievement goal theorists focused on their approach aspect. More recently, an integrated achievement goal conceptualization was proposed that includes both modern performance and mastery theories with the standard approach and avoidance features. In this basis for motivation, the performance goal is separated into an independent approach component and avoidance component, and three achievement orientations are conceived: a mastery goal focused on the development of competence and task mastery, a performance-approach goal directed toward the attainment of favorable judgments of competence, and a performance-avoidance goal centered on avoiding unfavorable judgments of competence. The mastery and performance-approach goals are characterized as self-regulating to promote potential positive outcomes and processes to absorb an individual in their task or to create excitement leading to a mastery pattern of achievement results. Performance-avoidance goals, however, are characterized as promoting negative circumstances. This avoidance orientation creates anxiety, task distraction, and a pattern of helpless achievement outcomes. Intrinsic motivation, which is the enjoyment of and interest in an activity for its own sake, plays a role in achievement outcomes as well. Performance-avoidance goals undermined intrinsic motivation while both mastery and performance-approach goals helped to increase it (Elliot & Church, ).

Most achievement theorists and philosophers also identify task-specific competence expectancies as an important variable in achievement settings. Achievement goals are created in order to obtain competence and avoid failure. These goals are viewed as implicit (non-conscious) or self-attributed (conscious) and direct achievement behavior. Competence expectancies were considered an important variable in classical achievement motivation theories, but now appear to only be moderately emphasized in contemporary perspectives (Elliot & Church, ).

Approach and Avoidance Goals

Achievement motivation theorists focus their research attention on behaviors involving competence. Individuals aspire to attain competence or may strive to avoid incompetence, based on the earlier approach-avoidance research and theories. The desire for success and the desire to avoid failure were identified as critical determinants of aspiration and behavior by a theorist named Lewin. In his achievement motivation theory, McClelland proposed that there are two kinds of achievement motivation, one oriented around avoiding failure and the other around the more positive goal of attaining success. Atkinson, another motivational theorist, drew from the work of Lewin and McClelland in forming his need-achievement theory, a mathematical framework that assigned the desire to succeed and the desire to avoid failure as important determinants in achievement behavior (Elliot & Harackiewicz, ).

Theorists introduced an achievement goal approach to achievement motivation more recently. These theorists defined achievement goals as the reason for activities related to competence. Initially, these theorists followed in the footsteps of Lewin, McClelland, and Atkinson by including the distinction between approach and avoidance motivation into the structure of their assumptions. Three types of achievement goals were created, two of which being approach orientations and the third an avoidance type. One approach type was a task involvement goal focused on the development of competence and task mastery, and the other being a performance or ego involvement goal directed toward attaining favorable judgments of competence. The avoidance orientation involved an ego or performance goal aimed at avoiding unfavorable judgments of competence. These new theories received little attention at first and some theorists bypassed them with little regard. Motivational theorists shifted away and devised other conceptualizations such as Dweck's performance-learning goal dichotomy with approach and avoidance components or Nicholls' ego and task orientations, which he characterized as two forms of approach motivation (Elliot & Harackiewicz, ).

Presently, achievement goal theory is the predominant approach to the analysis of achievement motivation. Most contemporary theorists use the frameworks of Dweck's and Nicholls' revised models in two important ways. First, most theorists institute primary orientations toward competence, by either differentiating between mastery and ability goals or contrasting task and ego involvement. A contention was raised toward the achievement goal frameworks on whether or not they are conceptually similar enough to justify a convergence of the mastery goal form (learning, task involvement and mastery) with the performance goal form (ability and performance, ego involvement, competition). Secondly, most modern theorists characterized both mastery and performance goals as approach forms of motivation, or they failed to consider approach and avoidance as independent motivational tendencies within the performance goal orientation (Elliot & Harackiewicz, ).

The type of orientation adopted at the outset of an activity creates a context for how individuals interpret, evaluate, and act on information and experiences in an achievement setting. Adoption of a mastery goal is hypothesized to produce a mastery motivational pattern characterized by a preference for moderately challenging tasks, persistence in the face of failure, a positive stance toward learning, and enhanced task enjoyment. A helpless motivational response, however, is the result of the adoption of a performance goal orientation. This includes a preference for easy or difficult tasks, effort withdrawal in the face of failure, shifting the blame of failure to lack of ability, and decreased enjoyment of tasks. Some theorists include the concept of perceived competence as an important agent in their assumptions. Mastery goals are expected to have a uniform effect across all levels of perceived competence, leading to a mastery pattern. Performance goals can lead to mastery in individuals with a high perceived competence and a helpless motivational pattern in those with low competence (Elliot & Harackiewicz, ).

Three motivational goal theories have recently been proposed based on the tri-variant framework by achievement goal theorists: mastery, performance-approach, and performance-avoidance. Performance-approach and mastery goals both represent approach orientations according to potential positive outcomes, such as the attainment of competence and task mastery. These forms of behavior and self-regulation commonly produce a variety of affective and perceptual-cognitive processes that facilitate optimal task engagement. They challenge sensitivity to information relevant to success and effective concentration in the activity, leading to the mastery set of motivational responses described by achievement goal theorists. The performance-avoidance goal is conceptualized as an avoidance orientation according to potential negative outcomes. This form of regulation evokes self-protective mental processes that interfere with optimal task engagement. It creates sensitivity to failure-relevant information and invokes an anxiety-based preoccupation with the appearance of oneself rather than the concerns of the task, which can lead to the helpless set of motivational responses. The three goal theories presented are very process oriented in nature. Approach and avoidance goals are viewed as exerting their different effects on achievement behavior by activating opposing sets of motivational processes (Elliot & Harackiewicz, ).

Intrinsic Motivation and Achievement Goals

Intrinsic motivation is defined as the enjoyment of and interest in an activity for its own sake. Fundamentally viewed as an approach form of motivation, intrinsic motivation is identified as an important component of achievement goal theory. Most achievement goal and intrinsic motivational theorists argue that mastery goals are facilitative of intrinsic motivation and related mental processes and performance goals create negative effects. Mastery goals are said to promote intrinsic motivation by fostering perceptions of challenge, encouraging task involvement, generating excitement, and supporting self-determination while performance goals are the opposite. Performance goals are portrayed as undermining intrinsic motivation by instilling perceptions of threat, disrupting task involvement, and creating anxiety and pressure (Elliot & Harackiewicz, ).

An alternative set of predictions may be derived from the approach-avoidance framework. Both performance-approach and mastery goals are focused on attaining competence and foster intrinsic motivation. More specifically, in performance-approach or mastery orientations, individuals perceive the achievement setting as a challenge, and this likely will create excitement, encourage cognitive functioning, increase concentration and task absorption, and direct the person toward success and mastery of information which facilitates intrinsic motivation. The performance-avoidance goal is focused on avoiding incompetence, where individuals see the achievement setting as a threat and seek to escape it (Elliot & Harackiewicz, ). This orientation is likely to elicit anxiety and withdrawal of effort and cognitive resources while disrupting concentration and motivation.

Personal Goals Analysis

In recent years, theorists have increasingly relied on various goal constructs to account for action in achievement settings. Four levels of goal representation have been introduced: task-specific guidelines for performance, such as performing a certain action, situation-specific orientations that represent the purpose of achievement activity, such as demonstrating competence relative to others in a situation, personal goals that symbolize achievement pursuits, such as getting good grades, and self-standards and future self-images, including planning for future goals and successes. These goal-based achievement motivation theories have focused almost exclusively on approach forms behavior but in recent years have shifted more toward avoidance (Elliot & Sheldon, ).

Motivation is an important factor in everyday life. Our basic behaviors and feelings are affected by our inner drive to succeed over life's challenges while we set goals for ourselves. Our motivation also promotes our feelings of competence and self-worth as we achieve our goals. It provides us with means to compete with others in order to better ourselves and to seek out new information to learn and absorb. Individuals experience motivation in different ways, whether it is task- or ego-based in nature. Some people strive to achieve their goals for personal satisfaction and self-improvement while others compete with their surroundings in achievement settings to simply be classified as the best. Motivation and the resulting behavior are both affected by the many different models of achievement motivation. These models, although separate, are very similar in nature and theory. The mastery and performance achievement settings each have a considerable effect on how an individual is motivated. Each theorist has made a contribution to the existing theories in today's achievement studies. More often than not, theorists build off of each other's work to expand old ideas and create new ones. Achievement motivation is an intriguing field, and I find myself more interested after reviewing similar theories from different perspectives.


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As a topic of interest for well over a century, motivation has been studied from multiple angles - from a physiological, instinctual, behavioral, psychoanalytical, and humanistic perspective. As the field of psychology has become more cognitive in its orientation, however, so has research on motivation. The cognitive theories of motivation include: intrinsic motivation, goal theory, achievement motivation, attribution theory, and social cognitive theory. Their impact on achievement and learning will be discussed as well.

Keywords Attributions; Conditioning Theories; Drives; Expectancy-Value Theories; Extrinsic Motivation; Flow; Intrinsic Motivation; Learning Goals; Performance Goals; Self-Actualization; Self-Efficacy

Educational Psychology: Motivation


Educators and psychologists have been studying motivation for well over a century. As a result, it has been investigated from nearly every angle - physiological, behavioral, instinctual, psychoanalytical, and humanistic. In the last several decades, however, the field of psychology has become more cognitive in its orientation and so too has research on motivation. Learning theorists have begun to realize that motivation, like other mental processes such as attention, perception, and memory, is an important ingredient in the learning process and can help to explain both academic success and failure (Clinkenbeard, ). Thus, cognitive theorists define motivation as "the process whereby goal-directed activity is instigated and sustained" (Pintrich & Schunk, ; Schunk, ). Even though motivation is defined as a cognitive construct, it is nonetheless something that must be inferred from behavior. Because researchers can't see motivation, cognitivists use behavioral indicators - such as persistence, task choice, and self-reports - to better understand why people are motivated to act as they do.

Sigmund Freud's Theory

Freud developed a complex and intricate theory of personality, as well as a revolutionary method of therapy known as psychoanalysis. Although he didn't use the same terminology, his concept of trieb (a German word meaning moving force), is similar in meaning to motivation (Pintrich & Schunk, ). More specifically, Freud viewed motivation as psychic energy, part of a larger system of energy within an individual that he believed was closed; energy might change its form, but it never changes in amount. When a need develops, Freud proposed that energy was directed toward behaviors that satisfy a need; need reduction is pleasurable, he argued, because the build-up of energy is unpleasant. Although many times energy is aimed toward reducing a particular need, Freud also believed it was often repressed. Repressed energy doesn't disappear, however, but rather manifests itself in other ways. Thus, sexual energy might result in overeating.

The idea that individuals sometimes don't have access to thoughts that are influencing their behavior is arguably one of Freud's most significant contributions to our understanding of motivation, and is mirrored in current theories regarding implicit motives (Pintrich & Schunk, ). However, Freud relegated unconscious forces to unreasonable heights, many argue, and therefore disregarded the impact of cognitions and the environment; people do have conscious goals and values, the attainment of which is sometimes altered by forces beyond their control (Pintrich & Schunk, ).

Drive Theory

Clark Hull, who became a well-known American psychologist in the early twentieth century for his work on hypnosis, became even more well-known for his contribution to drive theory Approaching the question of motivation from a physiological perspective, Hull believed behavior was comprised of two elements: the actual performance, and the variables that determine performance (Beck, ). He identified these determining variables as habit strength - the strength of the association between a stimulus and response - and drive, or "the motivational construct energizing and prompting organisms into action" (Schunk, , p. ). Hull argued that drive results primarily from physiological deficits; if an organism is hungry, drive will activate the organism to behave in ways to reduce the hunger. When the deficit is eliminated, drive subsides. Because much of human behavior isn't directly related to survival needs, Hull introduced the notion of secondary reinforcers. Money, for example, is a secondary reinforcer because it allows individuals to buy shelter and food. Thus, secondary reinforcers, by being paired with reinforcers that satisfy primary physiological needs, influence behavior.

Even though Hull had tried to broaden his theory by introducing secondary reinforcement, many still felt it fell short, especially with regard to explaining human behavior (Schunk, ). As Schunk () argues, there are many times people will ignore a primary need - like hunger - in order to attain a valued goal, such as winning a race or studying for an exam. In addition, people often strive for long-term goals, over a period of months or years; drive theory adds little insight to this type of behavior.

Conditioning Theories

In the early twentieth century - and largely in reaction to Freud's emphasis on the unconscious and unobservable - behaviorism came into prominence. Behaviorists explained all learning in terms of observable events - stimuli in the environment and the responses those stimuli elicited. Many behaviorists denied the existence of so-called mental events altogether; those who didn't nevertheless suggested they couldn't and shouldn't be studied. Thus, motivation is understood in terms of probability and frequency of behavior, not as a cognitive construct. Many theories explained human learning from a behaviorist point of view, but two theories in particular - classical conditioning theory and operant conditioning theory - became the hallmark theories.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning, first discovered by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, occurs when a previously neutral stimulus, upon being paired with an unconditioned stimulus, elicits a response. In the classic study, for example, Pavlov noticed that dogs salivated in the presence of food. Food served as an unconditioned stimulus that elicited an unconditioned response, salivation. When Pavlov then paired the sound of a bell (a neutral stimulus) with the presentation of the food, dogs soon learned to salivate in response to the bell alone. The bell then became a conditioned stimulus, the salivation in the presence of the bell a conditioned response. Schunk explains, "this is a passive view of motivation … because the motivational properties of the unconditioned stimulus are transmitted to the conditioned stimulus" (Schunk, , p. ). In other words, it is assumed to be an automatic process.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning also explains motivation in terms of relationships between stimuli and response. Proposed by B.F. Skinner, who is known as the father of behaviorism, operant conditioning explains behavior in terms of an antecedent stimulus, the behavior itself, and the consequences of behavior. The consequence - either positive or negative - determines the future likelihood the behavior will be exhibited again; a positive consequence increases the frequency of behavior, a negative consequence decreases the frequency of a behavior. According to Skinner, "operant conditioning requires no new principles to account for motivation. Motivated behavior is increased…by effective contingencies of reinforcement" (cited in Pintrich & Schunk, , p. 28).

Reinforcements do influence behavior. According to cognitive psychologists, however, it is a person's beliefs or expectations about the reinforcements that influence behavior as much, if not more so, than the reinforcements themselves. By ignoring these cognitive processes - expectation, beliefs, and memory - behaviorists "offer an incomplete account of human motivation" (Schunk, , p. ).

Humanistic Theory

Abraham Maslow developed a humanistic theory of motivation; like many theorists before him, Maslow defined motivated behavior in relation to needs. Unlike drive theories, however, Maslow identified needs other than physiological or biological ones. He classified needs into a hierarchy of five categories:

• Physiological

• Safety

• Belongingness

• Esteem

• Self-actualization (Schunk, )

According to Maslow, individuals must satisfy lower-order needs first, before attending to higher order needs. For example, a person is unlikely to worry about achievement or recognition from others - which are classified as esteem needs - if they cannot meet their physiological needs for food and water. Maslow was most interested in the highest level of the hierarchy, or self-actualization needs, defined as "ongoing actualization of potentials, capacities and talents, and fulfillment of mission…" (Maslow, , as cited in Schunk, , p. ). He believed self-actualization could be achieved in a variety of ways - one person might become self-actualized through athletic achievement, for example, another through parenting - but that only 1% of the population ever achieved it completely.

While many of Maslow's principles apply to our understanding of motivation in general, his theory has been difficult to validate empirically; research on self-actualization in particular, has yielded mixed results (Schunk, ). In addition, operational definitions of deficiencies of needs have remained elusive; what one person experiences as a deficiency of belongingness needs, another may experience as an overabundance of love and connectedness.

Cognitive Theories of Motivation

The following