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The Bones of Motivation, Part I - The Motive Center
January 22nd, 2005
07:26 pm


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The Bones of Motivation, Part I
It's been a busy time; I'll try to make up for it. I've been traveling a bit, and connecting with friends, and pondering a few things. Motivation, as I've said elsewhere, is why people do what they do.

But I've been thinking about why people don't do what they should. Why do motivated, capable people not do things that (at least on one level) they want to do?

I can't solve this one (I'd be a billionaire), but I can at least tease apart a piece of it. I've been writing about the motives as if they are single things. Well, they are, but they almost immediately get channeled into steps. The academic term is "subcategories," but I think of them as the bones beneath the motive, or perhaps the motive's own story. More following the cut!

It was quickly discovered in early explorations of motives that motivation isn't about the goal, it's about getting to the goal. Hungry sailors (I think I've written about this) wrote stories about getting to food, not just about food itself. There's a pattern to the way motives get expressed, and John Atkinson (an early thought-partner of David McClelland) called it "The Problem-Solving Model."

When scoring motives in a Picture-Story Exercise, you look for different aspects of a story: imagery about the person feeling the motivation, imagery regarding action towards the goal, and imagery of the goal itself. Person/Action/Goal. When you look at the pattern, it is easy to see why Atkinson called it a Problem-Solving Model:

N = Need = explicit description of need
Bp = Personal Block = a limitation of the person him- or herself that blocks action

I = Instrumental Activity (with positive, negative, or uncertain outcomes)
Bw = World Block = an external block to motivated action
Ga = Anticipation of the goal, either positive (Success) or negative (Failure)
H = Help = outside help to achieve the goal

G = Goal State = emotion around accomplishing or failing the goal - again, positive or negative.

When a person tackles a problem effectively, he or she first clarifies the direction of the problem-solving (Need), is aware of problems and obstacles (Bw, Bp), gets help to circumvent them (Help), takes action towards the goal (I), keeps looking ahead to anticipate the likelihood of getting there (Goal Anticipation), and then when they get to the goal they celebrate, which is reinforcing (Goal State +) or if they miss, they get emotionally focused on doing it again and better (Goal State -), creating a feedback loop to restart the process.

This is also, uncoincidentally, the model for a good action plan to achieve a goal. The more of these things you do, the more likely you are to set a reasonable goal and then achieve it. Atkinson developed this based on the Achievement motive, and it works really well in my experience. Good action plans require an explicit goal, specific actions, planning around obstacles, identifying enablers, and having a measure of success or failure--so you know when you get to your goal. See? (Incidentally, Affiliation and Influence/Power have slightly different sets of subcategories, but I'm going to ignore that for now. Most are the same.)

These are the immediate expressions of motivation, the level right above the raw emotion, showing how people express their motives in their very thoughts. Not everyone shows all of these consistently with their motives, and the pattern they do show is extremely important. I'll discuss that next post.

Current Music: The Remedy (I Won't Worry)

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