Toward a general theory of motivation: Problems, challenges, opportunities, and the big picture
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Motivation theories have tended to focus on specific motivations, leaving open the intellectually and scientifically challenging problem of how to construct a general theory of motivation. The requirements for such a theory are presented here. The primacy of motivation emphasizes that cognition, emotion, agency, and other psychological processes exist to serve motivation. Both state (impulses) and trait (basic drives) forms of motivation must be explained, and their relationship must be illuminated. Not all motivations are the same, and indeed it is necessary to explain how motivation evolved from the simple desires of simple animals into the complex, multifaceted forms of human motivation. Motivation responds to the local environment but may also adapt to it, such as when desires increase after satiation or diminish when satisfaction is chronically unavailable. Addiction may be a special case of motivation—but perhaps it is much less special or different than prevailing cultural stereotypes suggest. The relationship between liking and wanting, and the self-regulatory management of motivational conflict, also require explanation by an integrative theory.
KeywordsMotivation Wanting Desire Addiction Self-regulation Impulse Drive Liking Motivational plasticity
Compliance with ethical standards
Conflict of interest
This article is based on an address given by the author as president of the Society for the Study of Motivation at its annual conference. As its very name indicates, the Society is explicitly devoted to advancing the scientific study of motivation, and it is likely to elect presidents who share that partisan agenda, as indeed the author does. He did not receive direct monetary payments from the Society for giving the presidential address, for writing this article, or indeed for any of his other activities as president, but he did consume several meals paid for by the Society, especially at its annual business meeting. (The presidential term is officially just 1 year, but election to presidency entails a 3-year involvement in the executive committee, first as president-elect, then as president, and then as past president, and the author received at least one meal paid for by the Society during each of those years.) Furthermore, he reported his involvement with the Society as president-elect, president, and past president on his annual report of faculty activities to his primary employer, Florida State University, and doing so was indeed predicated on the assumption that such involvement might contribute in a positive way to his overall performance merit rating and thereby increase his salary. The publication of this article will likewise presumably be reported in next year’s activity report, again with the potentially self-serving goal of enhancing his merit evaluation and thereby his salary. Particular concern may arise in connection with the arguments expressed in the section “Primacy of motivation,” insofar as the Society for the Study of Motivation and, as president, the present author, could be seen as partisan and even biased in favor of motivation. To be sure, the author’s views on the primacy of motivation antedate his involvement with the Society, such as outlined in his 2005 book on human nature, but some readers may suspect that his involvement with the Society could have reinforced or possibly intensified those views. In short, readers who are highly sensitive to conflict of interest issues are advised to skip the section entitled “Primacy of motivation.” More generally, readers who are opposed to the promulgation of a general theory of motivation might justifiably suspect that the work that went into this article was colored by the author’s involvement as president of SSM, insofar as the Society (and, by extension, its members and particularly its leadership) stand to gain from advancing theory in that field. This potential for perceived conflict of interest is further complicated by the non-independence of this journal, Motivation and Emotion, to the Society for the Study of Motivation. (The Society sponsors the journal, oversees its business and editorial processes such as by choosing the editor, and benefits financially from the revenues generated by sales of journal subscriptions.) The author does not believe that his thinking and writing in this case were biased by these factors, but he recognizes that conflict of interest questions pertain more broadly to the potential appearance of bias than to actual bias, and in that connection it is fair to acknowledge that some readers might find the interrelationships among the journal, the society, and the present author (as recent president of the society) disquieting. If the article were to be successful in its stated project of advancing the field toward having a general theory of motivation, this would be beneficial to all three, as reflected in higher impact ratings for the journal and as a result potentially more subscriptions, more submissions, and more revenue, as well as greater intellectual and scientific clout for the society insofar as its topic, motivation, would become more widely understood and cited and potentially bring an increase in membership and hence more revenue, and lastly to the author, whose citation count would increase and in connection therewith potentially his own salary would rise, possibly in addition to an increase in speaking invitations with accompanying honoraria.
The material in this study does not contain any original reports of data obtained from studies with humans or animals or, for that matter, anyone else. It does cite previously published and unpublished findings conducted with studies on human participants. To the best of the author’s knowledge, informed consent was obtained from all such participants prior to their participation in the research.
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