Different Motives, Different Results


I asked my brother’s girlfriend, who works in HR, how her job was going one time and she answered by saying, “Oh it’s always interesting. I get to deal with the most unpredictable thing. Human behavior.” Great answer.

I think this is one of the many reasons I find psychology fascinating, specifically the psychology of motivation. It opens a door that begins to look at the “why” behind human behavior. Not that a psychological analysis of human motivations explains the human in clear cut understandable terms, but it investigates the relationship between what we do and how we do it, in light of why we do it. This is key, because humans do things differently depending on our motivations.

If one kid cleans his room because his mom told him to do it, and another kid cleans his room because he wants a clean room, then there will be a tangible difference in the cleanliness of their rooms because of the difference in their motivations. The first kid is motivated by an external factor, namely his mother telling him to do it or he will most likely be grounded. However, the motivation for the second kid is internal. The kid acknowledges the goodness of a clean room and desires his room to be that way.

Motivations change behaviors much more drastically and beneficially when they come from personal desires rather than external influences. This is seen most concretely in the subject of learning.

In the psychological field is it recognized that people learn things for one of two goals: mastery goals or performance goals. A mastery goal is when an individual works to learn something to master the task and become competent in the subject. A performance goal is when an individual  works to perform well compared to others in the same subject. One with a mastery goal is motivated internally to achieve competency at something because they personally desire the knowledge and benefit of that thing. One with a performance goal is motivated externally by others and works to achieve the standard of the group, whether that includes mastery or not. Numerous studies reveal that those with mastery goals versus performance goals achieve higher levels of learning and retaining the information or skill. This is mainly due to the fact that performance goals aim at short term learning, whereas mastery goals aim at long term learning.

Recently, this phenomena became undoubtedly valid in my own life. I took required Spanish classes in 8th and 9th grade, then never looked at it again until college. Now I have taken a total of seven semesters of Spanish courses since I started college. Until a few weeks ago I viewed learning another language as a chore. When would I ever use it? My goal was strictly performance. I took the class because it was required for me to graduate. I wanted to do as well as other people in the class in order to make the grade I needed to pass and move on. I saw no value in the course besides viewing it as another thing to check off a list so I could graduate on time.

Then, I decided I wanted to travel next year after I graduate. The switch flipped, and my motivation changed to mastery. I personally became motivated to learn the language because now it was a tool instead of a chore. A tool that would open doors to other countries and allow me to communicate with people from different cultures. 

The studies recorded large differences in the efficiency of learning with mastery goals, but I am witnessing this fact first-hand. Learning Spanish is now a personal desire of mine. I am acting from within, rather than from a fear of an outside punishment. I recognize the goodness in becoming bilingual and I want it for myself. I am more engaged in class, utilizing resources outside of class, retaining information more easily, and increasingly becoming more confident in my abilities. I am motivated to master the language for personal reasons, rather than work to “get by” for external reasons.

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