Psychosocial Theories of Motivation


Psychosocial Category

 As with the biological category, there are several theories under the psychosocial umbrella.  Some teach this category as simply social, but I find that there is a mental aspect to our social behavior, rather than just the social norm.  Three theories that I find most suitable for this category are the incentive theory, cognitive theory, and the expectancies theory.


The incentive theory explains how external stimuli motivates people.  We go to work so that we can get paid; we do well in school so that we could get a good grade (or get rewarded by our parents).  We intentionally engage in behaviors that will somehow reward us.  With that, sometimes our efforts for a reward go unrewarded, which can bring down our motivation.  For example, you know there’s a promotion coming up so you work hard for it, but don’t get it; you worked hard but the reward was not there so you may end up working less or not as hard since there was no reward for when you did work hard.  The greater the reward, the more people are motivated to work towards it.  If there’s no external reward, then there’s little motivation to work hard (internal motivation or intrinsic motivation will be discussed in another section).


The cognitive theory states that motivation is affected by how we interpret our own and other’s actions.  Our motivation is determined, in part, by attributions.  Attributions is explained as why we believe people behave the way they do.  The cause behind their behavior.  For example, if you meet a woman on an elevator and she snaps at you, you may believe that she is just a mean person (for lack of a better word…).  This goes the same way with our own behavior.  If we believe that all children are bad, then our behavior towards children will reflect that (avoid them, don’t have them, etc.).   Of course, there are errors in that thinking; that woman on the elevator may be the sweetest woman, but that morning her dog died, or her car was stolen.  We may interpret other’s actions incorrectly, thereby our behavior in reaction to that thinking would also be incorrect.  Instead of snubbing that woman, you could hold the door open for her, smile and say good morning.  Then, her interpretation of your action towards her would be that people are generally nice, which could reflect how she acts towards others the rest of the day.

Under this theory lies another theory called the cognitive evaluation theory.  This is where we would evaluate a situation or a task and we would determine if that situation or task is worth being in or doing.  If the task seems easy enough to do, then we would complete it because internally there is little to no effort (hey, can you grab me the remote).  There is no other motivation needed in order to complete that task and behave accordingly.   Under this theory, we want to have a certain amount of control; when we are more in control, then we are more likely to behave as such.  When the control is out of our hands, we determine if that situation or task is worth being in or worth doing.  If there is a challenge, then we determine if that challenge is doable; if not, then we tend to shy away from it.  For example, if someone asked me to write about any particular subject, I would, even if I was unfamiliar with the subject matter.  However, if I was asked to complete a study on the tasting of different insects, I would have no motivation to do that and would decline (if they were chocolate covered, I may reconsider).


The expectancies theory motivates our behavior by what we believe will happen.  Anticipation motivates us; if you anticipate that promotion then your behavior will reflect that and you will work harder.  We are always thinking about the future.  Whether it is five minutes from now or a year from now.  We have expectations for each of those time frames, and it is those expectations that we work towards in our behaviors.  If the expectations are positive (your girlfriend will say yes when you propose), then you are motivated to behave towards that expectation (treat her well). This theory proposes that we are in charge of achieving our desired outcome.

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