An achievement motive is an impulse to master challenges and reach a high standard of excellence. Both personality and situational factors influence achievement motivation.

Researchers often use the Thematic Apperception Test(TAT) to measure people’s need for achievement. The TAT consists of a set of ambiguous pictures, such as one of a woman standing in the doorway of a room. Researchers ask subjects to make up stories about these pictures. Some subjects’ stories consistently contain themes that relate to achievement. Researchers consider these subjects to have a high need for achievement.

Personality Factors

High-achievement motivation tends to lead to particular personality features. These include persistence, ability to delay gratification, and competitiveness:

  • Persistence: High achievers tend to be very persistent and work hard to attain goals they set for themselves.
  • Ability to delay gratification: High achievers tend to have a greater ability to delay gratifying their impulses in the short term in order to reach long-term goals.
  • Competitiveness: High achievers tend to select careers that give them opportunities to compete with other people.

Situational Factors

Some situational factors also affect achievement motivation. They include the expectation of success, incentives, control, and opportunity:

  • Expectation of success: People are more likely to have a high expectation of success if they have a feeling of self-efficacy, or confidence in their own ability to meet challenges effectively. People can acquire self-efficacy by dealing with difficulties and learning from mistakes. Having good role models and getting constructive feedback and encouragement also help to build self-efficacy.
  • Incentives: Incentives reward people for their competence and motivate them to achieve. However, incentives can also decrease people’s intrinsic motivation if people focus on getting incentives rather than doing tasks for their own sake.
  • Control: People tend to have more motivation to achieve if they feel they have control over some aspects of their work.
  • Opportunity: People are motivated to achieve only when they have the opportunity to achieve.

The Power of Goals

Goals are most likely to increase motivation to achieve if they are specific, challenging but achievable, and positive:

  • Goals should be specific. The more specific the goals, the more effective they are as motivators.

Example: If Steve is trying to get all his reading done for a final exam, a specific goal, such as I will finish one chapter each week,is more effective than a more diffuse goal, such as I will make sure I’m ready for my final.

  • Goals should be challenging but achievable. Goals have to be difficult enough to be challenging but easy enough to be reachable.

Example: If Kelly has been struggling to maintain a C average in a class all semester, a goal such as I will make a B on the final exam will be more motivational than a goal such as I will get an A in this class.

  • Goals should be positive. It is better for people to frame goals in terms of what they will do rather than in terms of what they will not do.

Example: A goal such as I will study for an hour every weekday evening is likely to be more effective than a goal such as I will not go out on weekday evenings.

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