Achievement Motivation

The degree to which a person achieves motivation and how the effects of motivation on their performance.

DOMAINS: business, education, psychology
Contributors: Laytoya Welch
School of Information Studies
Syracuse University


McClelland (1961), Atkinson (1968), David Elliot (1996)


David McClelland (believes that the need for achievement is a distinct human motive that can be distinguished fro other needs. One characteristic of achievement motivated people is that they see to be more concerned with personal achievement than with the rewards of success. He believes that they do not reject rewards but the rewards are not essential as the accomplishment itself (Argyris, 2010).

Atkinson theorized that orientation results from achieving success and avoiding failure. The motive to achieve success is determined by three things: (1) the need to succeed or need achievement (nAch); (2) the person's estimate of the likelihood of success in performing the particular task; and (3) the incentive for success-that is, how much the person wants to succeed in that particular task. The motive to avoid failure is determined by three similar considerations: (1) the need to avoid failure which, like the need to achieve success, (2) the person's estimate of the likelihood of failure at the particular task; and (3) the incentive value of failure at that task, that is, how unpleasant it would be to fail (Atkinson, 1966).

Both McClelland and Atkinson’s achievement and motivation theory was based on a personality characteristic that manifested as a dispositional need to improve and perform well according to a certain standard of excellence In order to assess people’s need for achievement, they used a projective instrument called the Thematic Appreciation Test (TAT) that elicits unconscious processes. In this instrument, people are asked to write a story describing the thoughts, emotions and behaviors of a person in an ambiguous picture or drawing (for example, a child sitting in front of a violin). The stories are then coded for achievement-related content including indicators of competition, accomplishments, and commitment to achieve. This technique, labeled the Picture Story Exercise (PSE), was used in numerous studies that tested the relations of nAch with various indicators of performance (Kaplan, 2009).

The Debate

After Atkins and McClelland’s theory of using the Thematic Appreciation Test (TAT) and the Picture Story Exercise (PSE), many researchers such as David Elliot believed that nAch was not the only achievement instrument. They also believed that the nArch approach was rather controversial due to its stereotype-promoting implication that people from certain groups were inherently low in need for achievement. Researchers such as, Davis Elliot realized that a more complete description of the achievement motive would require supplementing the positive affective arousal triggered by the potential for achievement, or Hope of Success (HS), with the negative affective arousal triggered by the potential for failure, labeled Fear of Failure (FF). Similar to HS, FF was believed to be shaped during the early years of life through child-rearing practices that included punishment—again, either tangible or affective, such as love withdrawal—for failing to meet parents' expectations (Elliot & Covington, 2001).

Terms and Definitions

Achievement Motivation – also referred to as the need for achievement, is an important determinant of aspiration, effort, and persistence when an individual expects his performance will be evaluated in relation to some standard of excellence. Such behavior is called achievement-oriented.

Motivation – to achieve is instigates when an individual knows that he is responsible for the outcome of some venture, when he anticipates explicit knowledge of results that will define his success or failure, and when there is some degree of risk, i.e., some uncertainty about the outcome of his effort. The goal of achievement oriented activity is to succeed, to perform well in relation to a standard of excellence or in comparison with others who are competitors (McClelland 1961, chapter 6; Atkinson 1964).

Achievement – Achievement imagery in fantasy takes the form of thoughts about performing some task well, of sometimes being blocked, of trying various means of achieving, and of experiencing joy or sadness contingent upon the outcome of the effort. The particular diagnostic signs of achievement motivation were identified by experimental fact. The results of validating experiments have been replicated in other social groups and societies. Together these experimental findings specify what is counted in an imaginative protocol to yield the n Achievement source, an assessment of the strength of achievement motivation (McClelland et al. 1953, chapter 4; McClelland et al. 1958)

Expectancy Value Theory – Expectancy Value (EV) Theory holds that an individual will expend EFFORT on a task to the degree that she 1) feels confident or has an expectation that she can be successful at the task if she applies herself to it, and 2) values the task and its associated rewards.

Achievement Motivation is an interesting topic that should be carefully examined to find its core purpose. It is first developed my an individual who has an extreme interest in accomplishing a task, therefore, is determined to put to forth an effort in accomplishing the task if one desires to. There are people who take on the role of achievement motivation in a different manner. For instance there are some who are motivated to achieve their goals only if there performance is evaluated and an award is given. However, there are some who are motivated to achieve their goals because of their fear of success or failure. I would recommend using Atkinson’s, McClelland’s and the expectancy value theory of achievement motivation because it examines the core aspects of achievement motivation of an individual.

REFERENCES ~ Coding Spreadsheet - Web View

  • Atkinson, J.W. (1957). Motivational determinants of risk-taking behavior. Psychological Review, 64, 359–372.
    Examines and analyzes Atkinson’s review on Motivation determinants of risk taking behavior.

  • McClelland, David C. "The American Psychologist." July 1985. Web.
    Abstract: Reviews research that demonstrates the importance of motivation, incentive value, and probability of success, independently measured, for predicting achievement performance and the frequency with which affiliation acts are performed. Both theory and research lead to the following conclusions: (1) motive strength, particularly in relation to the strength of other motives in the person, is the more important determinant of operant act frequency; (2) incentive value is the more important determinant of cognitively based choices; (3) motive strength and probability of success combine multiplicatively to predict response strength or probability; and (4) all determinants, plus this last interaction, together account for over 75% of the variation in operants such as affiliative act frequency. The remainder of the variation is readily attributable to environmental opportunities. (51 ref) (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2010 APA, all rights reserved)

  • "David McClelland's Research into Achievement Motivation." Team Building Training and Development. Web. 03 Nov. 2010. <>.'
    Abstract: An Accel Team representative uses David McClelland’s research to identify the approach of Achievement Motivation. The team states that David McClelland believes that the need for achievement is a distinct human motive that can be distinguished fro other needs. One characteristic of achievement motivated people is that they see to be more concerned with personal achievement than with the rewards of success. He believes that they do not reject rewards but the rewards are not essential as the accomplishment itself (Argyris, 2010).

  • Kuhl, Julius. "An Elaboration of the Theory of Achievement Motivation and Empirical Test." Rev. of Research Article. Psychological Review May 1978: 239-48. Web. 1 Nov. 2010. <http://>.
    Abstract: Proposes an elaboration of J. W. Atkinson's (1957) theory of achievement motivation to include standard setting as a determinant of risk preference and motivational tendency. When the personal standard is located at an intermediate level of task difficulty, the elaborated theory reduces to the original theory. In Ss having a motive to achieve success higher than the motive to avoid failure, a shift of the peak of the preference function is predicted from moderately difficult to more difficult tasks if the standard is more difficult and to easier tasks if the standard is easier. In failure-oriented Ss, an inverse relation between difficulty of standards and preferred difficulty level is predicted. Experimental results from 32 undergraduates confirm these predictions. It is concluded that some of the inconsistent findings concerning the preference functions of success-oriented or failure-oriented Ss can be explained by individual differences in personal standards of excellence. (30 ref) (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2006 APA, all rights reserved)

  • McClelland, David C., John Atkinson, Russell Clarke, and Edgar Lowell. The Achievement Motive, by David C. McClelland [et Al.]. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1953. Print.
    Abstract: This source contains a summary of research on the achievement motive conducted mainly at Wesleyan University. It provides a method of measuring one of the most important human motives, which can be applied to all other motives with equal success. The book contains what we believe to be an important contribution to psychological theory of motivation (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2006 APA, all rights reserve

  • Educational Psychology Review. Vol. 6. 49-78. Print.
    Abstract: This source explains the Expectancy –value model of achievement performance and choice from development perspective, by examining how research on the development of young children competence beliefs, expectancies for success, subjective tasks values, and achievement goals can be incorporated into the model. The kinds of change in children’s achievement beliefs considered include change in the factor structure of children’s conceptions beliefs and values; change across age in the mean level of those constructs; and change in children’s conceptions of ability beliefs and subjective values.
  • Norwich, B. (2007). Handbook of competence and motivation. edited by andrew J. elliot, carol S. dweck, new york: Guilford press 2005, hbk £54 ISBN 1-59385-123-5. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 77(3), 744.

  • View Article Martin, Andrew J., and Martin Dowson. "Interpersonal Relationships, Motivation, Engagement, and Achievement: Yields for Theory, Current Issues, and Educational Practice." Review of Educational Research 79.1 (2009):327-65. Abstract: In this review, we scope the role of interpersonal relationships in students' academic motivation, engagement, and achievement. We argue that achievement motivation theory, current issues, and educational practice can be conceptualized in relational terms. Influential theorizing, including attribution theory, expectancy-value theory, goal theory, self-determination theory, self-efficacy theory, and self-worth motivation theory, is reviewed in the context of the role of significant others in young people's academic lives. Implications for educational practice are examined in the light of these theoretical perspectives and their component constructs and mechanisms. A trilevel framework is proposed as an integrative and relationally based response to enhance students' motivation, engagement, and achievement. This framework encompasses student-level action (universal programs and intervention, targeted pro grams for at-risk populations, extracurricular activity, cooperative learning, and mentoring), teacher- and classroom-level action (connective instruction, professional development, teacher retention, teacher training, and classroom composition), and school-level action (school as community and effective leadership). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

  • Br J Educ Psychol. 2008 Jun;78(Pt 2):291-312. Epub 2007 Apr 30. The role of achievement goal orientations in students' perceptions of and preferences for classroom environment. Tapola A, Niemivirta M. University of Helsinki, Department of Education, Finland.
    BACKGROUND: Recent research on achievement motivation has begun to examine the effects of environmental factors affecting students' motivational beliefs and goal tendencies. However, when interpreting and applying the results, individual factors underlying students' different perceptions of their learning environment are often ignored. An implicit assumption seems to be that regardless of their dispositional differences (e.g. motivational basis), students will experience and benefit from instructional practices in the same way. AIMS: This paper highlights the importance of students' dispositional motivational factors when examining differences in their perceptions of and preferences for the learning environment. The study builds on a conception of student motivation that emphasizes the interaction of individual and contextual factors. SAMPLE AND METHOD: Questionnaires served as self-report tools and assessed students' achievement goal orientations, self-esteem, causality beliefs, academic withdrawal and perceptions of and preferences for the learning environment. The sample consisted of 208 sixth grade elementary school students. RESULTS: Based on latent class cluster analysis and one-way analyses of variance, it was found that students' perceptions of and preferences for the learning environment vary depending on differences in students' motivational tendencies. CONCLUSIONS: Students' dispositional motivational characteristics should be taken into account both in theoretical considerations and in instructional interventions.