Auto-Motive Model

Auto-Motive Model Definition

Auto-Motive ModelThe auto-motive model as proposed by John Bargh in 1990 describes the complete sequence of goal pursuit— that is, reaching a goal—as a process taking place outside of conscious awareness and control. The term motive is chosen to encompass goals, motives, and values, yet in most cases, research has focused on goals used in a broad sense. The auto-motive model complements self-regulatory models that focus more on the role of conscious goal choice. According to the automotive model, a strong mental link is supposed to develop between goals that individuals chronically pursue and cognitive representations of situations. Thus, due to consistent and repeated pairing, goals are automatically activated given a goal-relevant, so-called critical situation. As a consequence, these automatically activated goals direct behavior without intentional or deliberate involvement of the individual. In turn, reflective choice and other controlled influences on behavior can be bypassed.

In other words, goals are supposed to be represented in the mind in the same way as stereotypes, schemata, and other social constructs and their activation potential are understood to function in a similar manner. Therefore, they can also be automatically activated by situational features. Procedures and plans to attain the respective goal thus influence subsequent behavior, judgments, and decisions outside of the conscious control of the individual. As an example, a student holding an academic achievement goal returns to campus after a break. Being on campus activates the goal, and the student’s behavior now turns more toward studying than parties.

Auto-Motive Model History and Background

Research on perception up to the 1940s considered perception mainly to be a transformation process. Since the “new look” approach after World War II— numerous studies have shown that consciously and unconsciously activated goals of an individual shape the way this person perceives the environment and how this information is interpreted and remembered. The auto-motive model draws on this motivational principle of perceptual readiness (i.e., more attentional resources are given to context information in line with a current activated goal), yet takes the development of the “new look” research toward cognitive approaches into account. Under this later “new look” perspective, schemata, or stereotypes, were understood to function in a way similar to goals and values in the early days of the “new look.” The model introduced by Bargh bridges the two, motivational and cognitive, perspectives by proposing that much human behavior is guided by goals automatically activated through situational features, similar to cognitive activation effects (e.g., stereotypes). Central to the auto-motive model is the assumption that the situational cues for these motives rest in the unconscious as well.

Automatic Response Activation According to the Auto-Motive Model

The actual auto-motive model is quite complex and describes several paths for automatic responses to environmental features to occur. In general, automatic goal activation can happen by means of three different routes. First, situational features can activate goals and motives if a consistent pairing preexists between the situational cues and the goal. The activated goals and motives are idiosyncratic in their character, that is, specific to the individual in his or her chronic attainment. Second, situational features can directly activate socially shared norms beyond an idiosyncratic level. In other words, strong normative goals are being activated, too. The third route includes other individuals one is interacting with in the given situation. Thus, the activation does not depend on the situational setting alone, but on the goals and intentions of the interaction partners as well. In this case, perceived goal representations of the interaction partner are being activated. Given these three pathways, the subsequent steps toward behavior are quite different. Within the first route, situational cues lead to an activation of an individual goal: Either goal-relevant procedures or plans are activated. Plans lead to automatic response behavior, whereas procedures influence judgments and decisions. Within the second route, a more global normative activation results in plans that again activate response behavior. For the third path, the route to response behavior is a little more complex because it includes cognition about a third person. The activation of the goal representation of an interaction partner leads to an activation of personal, rather individual reactive goals. It is these goals that activate goal-related plans, which in turn activate corresponding behavior. The reason why the third path is comparatively more complex than the first two is due to the fact that while one can assume an automatic link between environmental features and situational representation, behavioral information of others is much more ambiguous relative to the perceived goal of the interaction partner. Put differently, the individual goal activation depends on the accessibility and applicability of the different possible goals of the interaction partner. Once this perceived goal has been defined, one’s own response goal is assumed to be activated immediately. This response goal activation is flexible and is dependent on the most accessible and best applicable perceived goal representation.

As one can easily see, the model encompasses three distinct routes to judgmental or behavioral responses. Depending on the features of the social environment, one of these automatic paths is being utilized.

Empirical Evidence for Auto-Motive Model

The auto-motive model—as described in the previous section—cannot be tested in its full extent, nor is it designed to be tested, as one would expect from a theory. Yet there are many research questions that have been influenced and instigated by the auto-motive model, and research addressing them has provided abundant evidence for each of the three paths to automatic behavior. Above and beyond the general influence of goals on perception, there is evidence for auto-motives in person and group judgment and in interpersonal interaction.

The influence of auto-motives on perception can be tied nicely to early work in the “new look.” It was shown that words describing values participants had previously indicated to hold were recognized faster than words irrelevant to participants’ goals and values. More recent research revealed, for example, that individuals who can be labeled as chronic egalitarians recognized words relevant to egalitarianism faster, if they were preceded by a goal-relevant stimulus. In the case of this particular experiment, pictures of African Americans and Caucasians were used as stimuli of which only the pictures of African Americans automatically triggered the chronic goal of egalitarianism for the respective individuals. These participants then showed lower response latencies to relevant target words. In line with the auto-motive model, a specific context activated a chronic goal (i.e., egalitarianism). Given this activation, these goals facilitate what an individual is more ready to perceive and what not.

But auto-motives also function beyond perceptual readiness; they can also influence how people judge other people or nonsocial objects. The body of research in this field is vast, and there is substantial converging evidence. Certain instrumental values or standards not only filter what people perceive in the world around them, they also determine people’s interpretation of it. On a more general societal level, goals and values can be embedded in the structure of stratified societies. To sustain this social structure, impressions and social judgments are made in line with the prevailing maintenance goal for the social dominance stratification to which individuals adhere.

Auto-motives also influence interpersonal interaction in very peculiar ways. So far, automatic goal activation within the auto-motive model has been understood to result from context cues and information paired with chronic goals. Recently, evidence has been found for goal activation by human beings close to the individual actor, for example, by a parent or a partner. If, for example, an academic achievement goal is linked to fulfilling the wish of one’s father, then the activation of the mental representation of the father can activate the related achievement goal. Another auto-motive is the so-called chameleon effect describing mimicry behavior. This nonconscious imitation is especially pronounced for individuals with a strong perspective-taking ability (i.e., being able to understand the ideas, perceptions, and feelings of another person). For them, interaction partners serve as triggers for their chronic perspective taking, which in turn leads to automatic and uncontrolled imitation behavior (e.g., rubbing your nose or shaking you foot). However, interpersonal relationships do not always have to be characterized by imitation. An intimacy versus an identity goal that is chronically accessible for an individual determines how this person approaches interpersonal relationships, either as a means for interdependence and mutual responsibility or as a constant source for self-verification and establishment of an individual identity.

In sum, the research described in this entry provides sufficient evidence supporting the auto-motive model. It is clear that aspects of detail may be subject to alternative interpretations, but overall the auto-motive model provides a sound background for research describing automatic responses to the environment. It has fused early research on motivated perceptual readiness with later approaches addressing more cognitive activation effects into one comprehensive model with the central tenet that goal activation and response behavior activation can happen unconsciously given a chronic association of the goal with a set of perceived environmental features.


  1. Bargh, J. A., & Chartrand, T. L. (2000). The mind in the middle: A practical guide to priming and automaticity research. In H. T. Reis (Ed.), Handbook of research methods in social and personality psychology (pp. 253-285). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Moskowitz, G. B. (2005). Social cognition: Understanding self and others. New York: Guilford Press.
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