Motives and the “Big three”

Motives are internal states that arouse and direct our behaviour toward specific objects or goals. Motive can be caused by deficit, a lack of something (e.g. hunger -> food). They differ on intensity depending on person’s circumstances and are often based on needs, states of tension within a person. When the need is satisfied, tension is reduced. Motives cause people to perceive, think and act in the ways that satisfy the needs and people are not always aware of them.


Henry Murray (1938) thought that “a need refers to a potentiality or readiness to respond in a certain way under certain given circumstances”. Needs organise perception, guiding us to ‘see’ what we want (need) to see. For example if a person has not eaten, he has a need for food. The motive behind this need is hunger. In this point, an individual can have thoughts and fantasies about food (hamburgers, pizzas ice creams, just a mention a few :) ). Our behaviour guide us to satisfy the need we are going trough at the moment. When we are feeling hungry we might go to store, buy food, cook it and eat it.

Research of motives have concentrated on a small set of motives. These are need for achievement, power and intimacy which are described to be the most important motives for human behaviour, “Big three”.

Need for achievement (nAch) has long interested psychologists and it has gained most research attention. David McClellan (1953) was best know for his research of the need for achievement which can be described as a desire to do better, to be successful and feel competent. Like in all motives, we assume that need for achieve will energise behaviour in certain (achievement related) situation. People who are motivated for need to achieve obtain satisfaction from accomplishing a task. They cherish the process of being engaged in challenging activities. They prefer moderate challenges because they are motivated to do better than others. People who want to avoid failures, choose a task that is too easy or too difficult. Person who are high in need for achieve prefers activities that provide some challenge. They enjoy tasks in which they are personally responsible for the outcome and prefer tasks for which feed back on their performance is available. One study examined children’s preference for challenge in variety of games. In ring-toss task children high in nAch chose moderate challenge (tossing a ring from moderate distance). Children who were low in need for achieve chose short distance or distance that was almost impossible.

Some practices can promote need for achievement among children. One is placing an emphasis on independence training. Parents can behave on the way that promotes autonomy and independence among their children and this promotes a sense of mastery and confidence in the child. Another way is to set challenging standards for the child. These expectations should not exceed the child’s abilities or she might give up. The idea is to offer goals that challenge, support the child if needed and reward the child when the goal is achieved. Success experiences develop child’s need for achieve. Persons with secure attachment style typically develop a higher level of adult achievement and there is no gender differences.

David Winter (1961) has researched the need for power (nPow). He defines it to as a readiness of preference for having an impact on other people. Need for power will energise behaviour in certain (power related) situations. It correlates for example with having arguments with others and taking larges risks when gambling. Individual high in nPow is interested in control over situations and people. Major sex difference what comes to nPow is that men perform a wide variety of impulsive and aggressive behaviours and women not. In social relationships men who are high in nPow are more likely argument and get divorce if corresponded with men who rank low in nPow. Men high in nPow have more frequent sex partners, engage sex earlier and are more likely to exploit women sexually compared those who score low. However, impulsive behaviour is less likely if individual has had responsibility training. Taking care of others help people high in nPow to learn to behave more responsibly. When people with high nPow do not get what they want, they might show strong stress responses. This is called power stress: people high in nPow might be vulnerable to ailments and diseases because with the stresses associated with inhibited power.

Need for intimacy (nInt) is based on the desire to have warm and fulfilling relationships with others. McAdams (1980) defined this as ”recurrent readiness to for warm, close, and communicative interaction with others”. People high in nInt want more intimacy and meaningful human contact on their everyday lives than those who have low scores in nInt. Women have higher need for intimacy than men. The typical high level person in nInt is a person who have few close friends and who prefer meaningful conversations over wild parties. He likes to one-to-one interactions more than group interactions and likes to discuss personal topics with friends. nInt is associated with certain positive life outcomes for both men and women. Among women it refers to happiness and satisfaction with life and among men in less strain in life.

Sources: Berk, L. E. (2014). Child development, 9th ed. Boston: Pearson Education, inc.


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