Cognitive Theory of Motivation

cognitive theory of motivation

In a previous post, we talked about the different approaches to explain motivation in psychology. In this post, we are going to explore the drive reduction approach of motivation a bit further.

Cognitive theories of motivation seek to explain human behavior as a product of the careful study and active processing and interpretation of information received. Such a perspective runs counter to rationalizing human behavior as a result of automatic responses governed by preprogrammed rules or innate mechanisms involving drives, needs and reactions. The actions of humans, in addition to what motivates them to engage in particular actions, are therefore, the product of deliberate thought processes such as beliefs, expectations, knowledge about things and past experiences.


Proponents of the Cognitive Theory of Motivation assert that people’s expectations guide their behavior, usually, in ways that would bring about desirable outcomes.

Cognitive motivation is said to be rooted on two basic factors. The first involves information available to the individual. Initially, an individual will process a situation based on whatever input is immediately available to his senses. The second factor involves the individual’s past experience, which the person refers to when trying to make sense of information presently available and in determining how to respond or relate to the current situation.

Types of Motivation

Deci and Ryan suggest that there are two types of motivation. Intrinsic motivation is the force that compels a person to fulfill his / her inner potential and interests. Moreover, intrinsic motivation corresponds to the inherent desire of an individual to express his / her authentic self through selected actions and behavior, across different settings, whether at work or at play. This particular type of motivation is said to be quite effective as people who are intrinsically-motivated feel that they can influence and determine the outcomes of their efforts. The notion of intrinsic motivation helps explain why some people prefer a lower-paying job that they like over a more lucrative one which may offer more material rewards but not as much enjoyment.

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is experienced when a person’s actions are influenced by the desire to attain goal objects or rewards. Rewards may be tangible, such as food or money, or intangible, such as pride and recognition.

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Goal Setting Theory

According to one cognitive theory of motivation, the Goal Setting Theory, three factors affect an individual’s probability of success in achieving an outcome. Specifically, these are

  1. the time set for the attainment of a goal
  2. the degree of complexity or difficulty of the goal
  3. the specificity of the goal

Ideally, the shorter the time between the initiation of action toward a goal and the time the goal is achieved, the greater are the chances of success. With regard to level of complexity of the goal, it is said that this factor determines how attractive the goal is to the person. A goal is most attractive and appealing to an individual if it is neither too easy nor too difficult to attain. Goals that are too easy fail to provide satisfaction for the individual while goals that are too difficult to obtain can cause a person to feel discouraged and expend less effort in trying to attain the goal. Furthermore, goals need to be precise so that the individual knows exactly what is expected of him and the type and amount of effort / actions needed in order for him to attain the goal.

Expectancy – Value Theory

Simply stated, this theory asserts that the motivation of people and their probability of success in attaining their goals largely depend on their expectation of success multiplied by the value they place on success. Different people have varied expectancies, which are influenced by past experiences and appraisals of these past experiences, in addition to social and cultural factors such as parental values and gender-role stereotypes. Those with positive expectancies are convinced that they have what it takes to succeed at a task while those with negative expectancies believe in their impending failure. People who expect to succeed at obtaining a goal and to whom the attainment of the goal is quite important, are more highly motivated to engage in actions that will ascertain attainment of the goal.

Attribution Theory

Attribution theory suggests that individuals, as learners, have a deeply-rooted need to understand how and why they encounter success or failure at a task, especially when the outcome is an unexpected one. Some explanations or causal attributions that people make may be related to amount of effort, degree of luck, ability levels and task difficulty. An important concept supported by this theory is that of locus of control, which has to do with whether a person believes his success or failure to be the result of internal factors such as one’s own ability and effort (internal locus) or of external factors such as difficulty of task (external locus).

Applications of Cognitive Motivation Theories

The above theories are but a few samples of the many variations of cognitive theories of motivation that are extensively and effectively utilized in education, at the workplace, in sports, and with health and fitness issues such as those involving proper nutrition and substance abuse.

Photo credit: GE Healthcare

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