Competence Motivation

Effectance Motivation, autonomy, competence, relatedness)

DOMAINS: Business, Education, Health
Contributors: Michael DiBello
School of Information Studies
Syracuse University

Susan Harter, Robert W. White


In 1959  (White, 1959) Robert W. White proposed a new concept: effectance motivation. He described effectance  as  a "tendency to explore and influence one’s environment." White suggested that the "master reinforcer" for humans is sense of competence. He defined competence as "the ability to interact effectively with the environment." He held that competence motivation was different from biological driven motivation, such as hunger, thirst or sleep, It serves to enhance the abilities of the person, rather than regulate a biological process. Competence is not  based on a state of biological deprivation and reinforced by alleviating the deprivation as in Hull’s Drive theory . Instead, it helps one to improve oneself. People often engage in activities simply to experience competence.

 In 1978,  (Harter, 1978)  (Harter S. , 1981)Susan Harter expanded on this idea in the paper “Effectance motivation reconsidered: Toward a developmental model” developing the Competence Motivation Theory.  A basic construct of competence motivation is the degree of approval or disapproval attached to the result of the child's mastery attempts which relates directly to one’s sense of competence.

 The competence theory states that children will gravitate to areas in which they perceive competence and avoid areas where success is hit or miss and a sense of accomplishment is lacking. Successful and failed mastery attempts result in reinforcement of the domain that a person migrates towards. . People will gravitate like school subject or style of game that "plays to one’s strengths" because it makes them feel competent and creates a positive feeling which reaffirms their competence within that domain.
In 1981,  (Harter S. , The Perceived Competence Scale for Children) Harter developed The Perceived Competence Scale for Children which emphasizes the assessment of a child's sense of competence across different domains, instead of as a unitary construct. Three skill domains of competence were identified the cognitive, social, and physical domains, each having a separate subscale. A fourth subscale called general self-worth which is independent of any particular skill domain is  included. Each subscale defines a separate factor, indicating that children make clear differentiations among these domains.


Use in education or business to determine where a student or employee’s perceived strengths lie and use this to encourage increased productivity. It can also be used to determine where a person’s perceived weakness lies and help boaster or strengthen this area through mentoring, remedial instruction or support and encouragement

REFERENCES ~ Coding Spreadsheet - Web View

  • Harter, S., Effectance motivation reconsidered: Toward a developmental model. Human Development, 1978. 1: p. 34-64.

  • Harter, S. (1981). A Model of intrinsic mastery motivation in children: individual differences and developmental change. Minnesota symposia on child psychology. Vol. 14. Hillsdale, N.J

  • Tong, E., Bishop, G., Enkelmann, H., Diong, S., Why, Y., Khader, M., & Ang, J.. (2009). Emotion and Appraisal Profiles of the Needs for Competence and Relatedness. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 31(3), 218.

  • Silon, E L. (1985). Assessment of perceived competence, motivational orientation, and anxiety in segregated and mainstreamed educable mentally retarded children. Journal of educational psychology, 77, 217-230.

  • Harter, S, Whitesell, N R, & Kowalski, P. (1992). Individual differences in the effects of educational transitions on young adolescents. American Educational Research Journal, , 777-807.

  • Bouchey, H A, & Harter, S. (2005). Reflected appraisals, academic self-perceptions, and math/science performance during early adolescence. Journal of educational psychology, , 673-86.

  • Harter, S. (1992). The role of competence in children. Merrill - Palmer Quarterly, 38, 350-363.