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Arousing motives, continued - The Motive Center
July 6th, 2005
10:15 pm


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Arousing motives, continued
So last time I was whinging (lovely English word) about my travel and how it drained me, but I also alluded to my motives getting aroused. This is a technical term, believe it or not (psychologists do have some fun with their labels sometimes). This is a very handy thing to know about, so let's talk about how you pump up a motive, albeit temporarily...maybe...

Some theorists, like David Winter, think of motives not as some fixed well in the brain, but instead a more dynamic "arousability curve." That is, instead of a sort of set switch or thermostat of each motive -- "X of Achievement, Y of Affiliation, Z of Power" -- you just tend to get pumped up more easily on one rather than another, and what we think of as being your overall "level" is actually just where you tend to hover on average, or perhaps your ease of arousability as measured by the pictures on the Picture-Story Exercise. Practically speaking, it may not matter for your purposes other than to think of motives as not fixed, but dynamic. And if you have the right signals, your motives can pop up higher. I like to think of a motive as providing a sort of "hot spot," which can be triggered by the right push.

When setting yourself goals, you are actually helping arouse your Achievement motive. See, it's not accidental that this goal-setting stuff works, it actually generates emotional energy! More examples after the cut...

In general, setting goals with lots of measures, especially milestones or other intermediate measures, helps arouse your Achievement motive. Good management is largely composed of setting up environments that arouse and sustain Achievement-motivated behavior, at least at the more individual levels. (Executives are another ballgame entirely, which I'll discuss later.)

Having a personal loss, separation, or negative interaction with someone can arouse your Affiliation motive; so can the more positive impact of something special and sentimental, like looking at your child asleep, or getting smiled at by a baby or other loved one. My six-year-old daughter made a little craft for a friend whose mother has just passed away, and it is a little heart with a sad face and a tear. Just looking at it raises my Affiliation motive...

Power/Influence motive can be bumped up negatively by someone poking at you, literally or figuratively, or being challenged on a personal level in some way. Or sometimes by an image or idea that is arresting.

Now there are limits to this sort of thing. Achievement-motivated people tend to spontaneously set goals and measures, because it feels good to them. If you are low in that, it may be exhausting to set lots of detailed goals instead of arousing, because you use up what little you have in the process. One must be moderate, at least relative to you!

But there is one way to develop motives, and that is to arouse them over and over. McClelland and his researchers figured out how to develop the Achievement motive around forty years ago or so now: teach people how to think in that way, make them practice doing it, and find ways to make it artificially rewarding until it becomes rewarding on its own.

Interestingly, in the longitudinal study I mentioned last post (Sears, Maccoby, & Levin), we found one motive that did change over time, somewhat. Not hugely, but noticeably. It was the Affiliation motive. Why? Probably because getting married arouses your Affiliation hugely, and provides more opportunities for daily arousal, as well as having children--each child will slam your Affiliation to the top for a while, and provide many opportunities to reinforce it. So in fact you go through this learning process without intending to just by having a family.

It's often commented that grandparents are more sentimental and warm than they were as parents--this may be why! Likewise, people starting second families, or older parents, may be more affiliative, because a loss (be it divorce or death) can raise your affiliation motive permanently, at least a bit.

So can this be useful? Sure. Set up a situation to reinforce your motive, and you are making it easier to increase your energy levels at least, or bringing in energy from new sources when you need it. Simple in description, a bit harder in practice! But this is, as I noted, one of the reasons to set goals--because Achievement motive, whatever its negative characteristics, does tend to mobilize you to finish things, to meet a goal.

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