Achievement Motive Theory

Competence is a recurring theme in human movement whether the setting is sport, exercise, or rehabilitation.  From  the  earliest  days  of  life,  people strive  to  feel  effective  in  their  unfolding  interactions  with  the  environment  and,  throughout  the lifespan, people’s well-being is compromised when this  need  is  thwarted.  Despite  the  apparent  universality of competence motivation, there are clear differences  in  the  ways  that  people  pursue  competence.  Achievement  motivation  theories  strive to  explain  the  processes  that  initiate,  direct,  and maintain   achievement   behavior.   Achievement motives  are  relatively  stable  individual  differences  that  influence  people’s  motivation  during competence  pursuits.  This  entry  defines  achievement  motives,  provides  an  overview  of  how  they develop, reviews implicit and explicit measures of motives,  and  summarizes  documented  outcomes of achievement motives.

Achievement Motives

The   earliest   achievement   motivation   theories focused on people’s aspired level of behavior and the perceived utility of different behaviors as indicated  by  the  expectancies  and  values  that  people associated  with  those  behaviors.  A  key  assumption underlying these approaches was that people make  conscious  and  rational  choices  about  their achievement behavior. Around the same time that the  expectancy-value  theories  were  emerging, personality  psychologist  Henry  Murray  proposed a  system  of  psychological  needs  that  included achievement  (a  need  for  efficiency  and  effectiveness) and infavoidance (a need to avoid humiliation and to refrain from action due to fear of failure). These  needs  were  proposed  to  explain  individual differences in behavior. David McClelland and colleagues  in  several  works  subsequently  introduced the  construct  of  achievement  motives  to  account for  individual  differences  in  people’s  achievement behavior under similar conditions. Motives represented  the  strength  of  associations  between  environmental  cues  (e.g.,  competence  pursuits  where success  or  failure  are  possible)  and  learned  affective responses to those cues. Given the importance of competence to the self, self-evaluative emotions such as pride and shame provided logical affective bases for these motives.

Two motives were proposed based on people’s orientation  toward  or  away  from  competence based incentives during competence pursuits. The motive  to  approach  success  (sometimes  referred to as hope for success) described individual differences in people’s tendency to experience anticipatory pride while engaged in a competence pursuit. The  motive  to  avoid  failure  described  individual differences  in  people’s  tendency  to  experience anticipatory  shame  while  engaged  in  a  competence pursuit. Over time, these motives have been referred to as the need for achievement and fear of failure, respectively.

Achievement-Motive-Theory-sports-psychologyThe  anticipatory  pride  and  shame  involved  in motives are instrumental in energizing and orienting achievement behavior. For example, pride fosters persistence and heightened engagement in goal pursuit,  promotes  long-term  achievement,  stimulates interpersonal expressiveness, engages flexible social  behavior,  and  contributes  to  the  development  of  social  capital  over  time.  Shame,  on  the other hand, motivates withdrawal. It can promote appeasement or aggressive behaviors depending on how people regulate their shame. From an achievement  motivation  perspective,  shame  will  undermine persistence and create difficulties in achieving long-term goals.

In   their   achievement   motivation   theory, McClelland  et  al.  posited  that  a  person’s  motivation  is  influenced  by  a  tendency  toward  success and  a  tendency  away  from  failure.  Each  of  these tendencies  was  represented  as  the  product  of  the person’s  perceived  probability  of  succeeding  (or failing),  the  value  of  the  reward  for  succeeding (or  the  punishment  for  failing),  and  the  person’s motives.  Thus,  motives  were  proposed  to  refine basic  expectancy-value  predictions  and  elaborate on  interindividual  variation  in  behavior.  Over time, the independence of approach and avoidance motivation  became  apparent,  and  the  idea  that approach  and  avoidance  tendencies  produced  a single  resultant  motivation  orientation  was  abandoned.  In  contemporary  research,  the  approach and  avoidance-based  achievement  motives  are typically  treated  as  independent  predictors  of motivational outcomes, and their direct effects on motivational outcomes receive more attention than their interactions with expectancies and values.

Development of Achievement Motives

Research  on  the  development  of  self-evaluative emotions  informs  our  understanding  of  how  the two  achievement  motives  develop.  Self-evaluative emotions  are  a  unique  class  of  emotions  because they are not present at birth and require some cognitive development before they appear. The necessary cognitive  milestones  include  (a)  the  development of a sense of self (typically 15–24 months of age); (b) the internalization of rules, standards, or goals for  desired  behavior  (typically  24–41  months  of age);  and  (c)  the  evaluation  of  oneself  in  relation to those internalized rules, standards, or goals (as early  as  30  months  of  age).  If  children  appraise that they are complying with the rules, standards, or  goals  that  they  internalized  through  socialization,  they  should  feel  proud.  On  the  other  hand, if they appraise that they are not complying with those rules, standards, or goals, and attribute that deviance to a personal flaw (as opposed to a simple  behavioral  error),  they  should  feel  shame.  As children  develop  a  history  of  experiencing  pride and  shame  in  their  competence  pursuits,  those competence pursuits increasingly become cues for anticipatory  pride  and  shame.  This  association and anticipatory affective response is the basis for achievement motives. With roots in such foundational  self-evaluative  processes,  these  motives  are likely  to  generalize  across  achievement  contexts and should not be domain specific.

Measuring Implicit and Explicit Motives

One   major   controversy   in   the   achievement motives   literature   concerned   the   measurement  operations  used  to  assess  these  motives. Originally, McClelland and his colleagues adapted the  Thematic  Apperception  Test  and  asked  participants  to  view  ambiguous  images  of  people involved  in  competence  pursuits,  and  to  write  a story  about  the  image  (e.g.,  What  is  happening? What  happened  previously?  What  will  happen next?).  Content  from  the  ensuing  narratives  can be coded using different schemes for the need for achievement  or  fear  of  failure,  which  was  called hostile press in an early scoring system. This procedure has been refined in the contemporary picture story exercise. This fantasy-based assessment procedure  is  relatively  time-consuming  and  requires extensive  training,  so  a  number  of  researchers attempted to develop parallel self-report measures that  could  be  administered  quickly  and  easily without sacrificing (and possibly even enhancing) validity.  When  scores  from  self-reported  achievement  motives  were  compared  with  scores  from projective  tests,  the  correlations  were  unexpectedly small.

After  extensive  debate  over  which  score  was the  more  valid  measure  of  achievement  motives, researchers concluded that both scores were valid and  that  the  difference  reflected  differences  in the motivational systems that were assessed. This discovery  contributed  to  the  distinction  between implicit and explicit motivation. Implicit achievement  motives  are  rooted  in  affective  arousal  and are reflected in scores from the projective, fantasy-based  measures.  Explicit  achievement  motives involve  cognitive  elaboration  and  are  reflected in  scores  from  the  self-report  measures.  Implicit motives are posited to predict spontaneous, non-declarative  outcomes  that  may  be  regulated  outside of a person’s conscious awareness (e.g., procedural learning),  whereas  explicit  motives  are  posited  to predict  declarative  outcomes  of  which  people  are self-consciously aware (e.g., enjoyment). Although the implicit or explicit distinction is still common in  the  achievement  motivation  literature,  other models  refer  to  these  dual  processes  as  impulsive or automatic and reflective or controlled processes, respectively.

Overall, the motivational taxonomy at the heart of motive-based approaches can be summarized as a 2×2 taxonomy. Both approach and avoidance-based achievement motives exist at implicit, impulsive,  or  automatic  levels  and  explicit,  reflective, or controlled levels of analysis. The vast majority of  research  on  achievement  motives  in  physical activity contexts has employed explicit motivation measures so relatively little is known about implicit measures of motivation in these contexts.

Within the context of sport, most of the research on  achievement  motives  has  focused  on  fear  of failure. This research often equated fear of failure with performance anxiety although it is now clear that  athletes  may  experience  anxiety  over  threats other  than  failure  (e.g.,  injury,  success).  This  distinction is important because contemporary models of emotion hold that emotions reflect people’s ongoing adaptational struggles. Thus, the possibility  of  failure  by  itself  is  insufficient  as  a  stimulus for activating a person’s fear of failure because the meaning of failure can vary considerably from one person to the next.

The  cognitive–motivational–relational  theory of  emotion  has  been  applied  to  understand  the meaning  of  failure.  In  a  series  of  studies,  five major aversive consequences of failing have been identified.  These  include  shame  and  embarrassment,  devaluing  one’s  self-estimate,  having  an uncertain future, upsetting important others, and having  important  others  lose  interest.  Beliefs  in each of these consequences are strongly correlated so there appears to be a general fear of failure that underlies  beliefs  in  each  of  these  specific  consequences.  Beliefs  that  failure  leads  to  shame  and embarrassment  are  most  closely  related  to  the original  definition  of  fear  of  failure.  Perhaps  not surprisingly, this belief was also the most strongly associated  with  the  general  fear  of  failure  and seems  to  be  the  most  relevant  for  achievement motivation. It is clear that all five of the beliefs are strongly  associated,  and  collectively  they  provide a better representation of the universe of the fear of  failure  domain  than  does  any  single  belief  by itself.

Consequences of Achievement Motives

Achievement  motives  influence  people’s  lives  in a  variety  of  ways,  although  more  attention  has focused  on  the  impact  of  fear  of  failure  than  on need for achievement. In academic contexts, fear of failure has been linked with decreased moral functioning  and  increased  attention-seeking  behavior. From  a  health  perspective,  fear  of  failure  is  positively  associated  with  anorexia,  anxiety,  depression,  and  headache  disorders.  College  students who present for counseling services frequently cite fear  of  failure  as  a  problem  that  interferes  with their lives and academic performance.

Research within the context of sport has documented that young athletes report fear of failure as a salient source of stress and a reason for dropping out of sport. Athletes have also attributed their use of ergogenic drugs to their fear of failure. Officials, such  as  umpires  and  referees,  cite  fear  of  failure as a common reason for burnout and turnover in their work.

The   most   well-established   consequences   of achievement  motives  involve  achievement  goals. People  with  a  strong  need  for  achievement  tend to  adopt  approach–valenced  achievement  goals such  as  mastery–approach  (focused  on  learning  and  improving)  and  performance–approach goals  (focused  on  outperforming  others).  People with a strong fear of failure tend to adopt avoidance–valenced achievement goals such as mastery– avoidance  (focused  on  not  making  mistakes  or getting  worse)  and  performance–avoidance  goals (focused on not being outperformed others). People who  fear  failing  may  also  adopt  an  approach-to-avoid  strategy  whereby  they  adopt  performance– approach  goals  because  demonstrating  normative competence provides immediate, albeit short-lived, evidence that one is not incompetent. Each of these achievement goals has important consequences for achievement  behavior.  Over  time,  consistent  patterns  of  achievement  goal  involvement  contribute to the achievement differences between people with different motive profiles.


Achievement  motives  are  useful  theoretical  constructs for explaining factors that energize and initially  orient  achievement  behavior.  These  motives emphasize fundamental differences between people in their approach and avoidance tendencies during competence pursuits. They remain a relevant component  of  contemporary  achievement  motivation theories by virtue of their role in predisposing people toward characteristic achievement goals during their  competence  pursuits.  These  constructs  will remain useful as motivation theories develop more nuanced  explanations  of  how  people  respond  in the different psychological contexts of their competence pursuits.


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  2. Conroy, D. E., & Hyde, A. L. (2012). Measurement of achievement motivation processes. In G. Tenenbaum, R. C. Eklund, & A. Kamata (Eds.), Handbook of measurement in sport & exercise psychology (pp. 303–317).
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  6. Schultheiss, O. C. (2008). Implicit motives. In O. P. John, R. W. Robins, & L. A. Pervin (Eds.), Handbook of personality (pp. 603–633). New York: Guilford Press.

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