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Unconscious vs. Conscious Motivation

Since the early days of human psychology, many are interested in discovering the principles behind motivation. This is an important topic for many including managers, teachers, and parents. The ability to understand the intricacies of motivation will help them to create strategies and teaching tools that will encourage the people under their care or their supervision to be motivated in performing a particular task. One way of understanding motivation is to study it through the lens of the dispositional perspective which argues that motivation is a byproduct of conscious thought and the fusion of three major elements of human behavior which are awareness, inclination, and ability.

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Human Behavior

Behaviorists and other researchers who are interested in human behavior tried to find out the factors that make a person behave in a certain way. This is not just about a person’s likes and dislikes, his or her mannerisms but also actions like talking to a friend, watching a particular movie, choosing a career, and the performance of a certain action to achieve a specific goal. Understanding human behavior, especially when it comes to motivation will be beneficial to many people. It will be beneficial to parents, teachers, and managers among others.

In the case of parents, the ability to understand what motivates a child from performing a task can be of great help when it comes to child-rearing. For teachers, it would be easier to train their students to acquire certain skills if they know how to motivate them. Managers on the other hand are also interested because they want to know how to improve the performance of their workers. A motivated worker will be able to accomplish more than what is expected of him or her. After all, the basic challenge for all organizations is to determine how to persuade their employees to work towards organizational goals (Moynihan & Pandey, 2007).


According to one definition of motivation, it is goal-directed behavior and characterized by the process of selecting and directing certain actions among voluntary activities to achieve goals (Kamal et al., 2009). This means that when it comes to voluntary activities – e.g. going to a friend’s house, completing an assignment, helping an old lady cross the street – requires motivation to be completed. It can therefore be argued that since these activities are voluntary it requires conscious thinking (McClelland, 1987). A person will not find himself in front of his friend’s house without first deciding beforehand that he will come and visit.

Motivation is not a byproduct of the unconscious, it is the result of knowledge, experience, or skills that were already a part of the person before he or she performed a particular voluntary action (Brock & Green, 2005). Information plays a key role in motivation (Kruglanski, 1990). There are even those who argue that motivation is not a solitary element of human behavior but a part of a whole, the fusion of elements that includes:

  • Inclination;
  • Awareness; and
  • Ability (Ritchhart & Perkins, 2002).

Using the dispositional perspective one can argue that a person is not simply motivated to do something unconsciously. First, there is awareness; this may come from knowledge about a particular subject matter. For instance, an employee may get hold of information regarding the requirements needed for promotion to a managerial level. Then for the person to perform the necessary tasks needed for a promotion, he must first incline to be a leader or at least someone who wants to do more challenging roles. Then the person will conduct an inventory of skills and his social network to determine if he has what it will take to succeed. When everything is in place then the person will be motivated to go for promotion. When the person feels inadequate then his drive will significantly decrease.

This will help explain why there are people who find it hard to motivate themselves. This can also explain why some lack the drive to excel. It is not therefore the lack of motivation but the lack of the necessary ingredients required to be motivated. Educational background may be an important key but in some instances, it can be an inclination to do a particular action or sustain a particular behavior that may be lacking. And even if one is inclined to do a particular thing the lack of ability or tools to accomplish a specific goal may discourage him to do so. A manager, teacher, or parent must keep all the elements of motivation in mind to design a process or a training regimen that will help the people under their care reach a desired level of success.

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Motivation is not a byproduct of unconscious behavior. There is evidence pointing to the contrary – that every action is deliberate and the driving force behind each action is the combination of awareness, inclination, and ability. Fusing these three will create a motive. This in turn will propel a person to do a particular task. Based on this argument one can deduce the working principles behind human behavior especially when it comes to achieving objectives and the desire to succeed.

A person must first be aware of the pertinent information regarding a particular goal or action. For instance, he or she must be aware of the rewards associated with a particular task. Then it is his or her inclination to a particular activity that will increase interest and then an inventory of skills and abilities will make him or she decide to go for it.


Brock, T. & M. Green. (2005). Persuasion: Psychological Insights and Perspectives. CA: Sage Publications.

Kamal, S. et al. (2009). “Motivation and Its Impact on Job Performance.” Web.

Kruglanski, A. (1990). Motivations for Judging and Knowing Implications for Causal Attribution. In R. Sorrentino & E. Tory (Eds.). Handbook of Motivation and Cognition. New York: Guilford Publications.

McClelland, D. (1987). Human Motivation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Moynihan, D. & S. Pandey. (2007). “Finding Workable Levers Over Work Motivation: Comparing Satisfaction, Job Involvement, and Organizational Commitment.” Administration and Society. 39(7): 803-832.

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Ritchhart, R. & D. Perkins. (2002). Intellectual Character. CA: Jossey-Bass, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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