Achievement and Cognition in Motivation

Cognitive and achievement approaches to motivation examine how factors like achievement goals and cognitive dissonance influence motivation.


  • Summarize the roles of achievement and cognition in motivation


    • According to the achievement approach to motivation, the need for achievement drives accomplishment and performance and thereby motivates our behavior. People are motivated by different goals related to achievement, such as mastery or performance goals.
    • Mastery goals are a form of intrinsic motivation that tend to be associated with the satisfaction of mastering the material at hand.
    • Performance goals are extrinsically motivated and tend to be associated with wanting to attain positive outcomes or avoid negative outcomes.
    • Cognitive approaches to motivation focus on how a person's cognitions—and especially cognitive dissonance—influence their motivation.
    • The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce contradictory cognitions by either changing or justifying their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.


  • masterTo learn to a high degree of proficiency.
  • extrinsicExternal, separable from the thing itself, inessential.
  • intrinsicInnate, inherent, inseparable from the thing itself, essential.
  • cognitive dissonanceA conflict or anxiety resulting from inconsistencies between one's beliefs and one's actions or other beliefs.


Motivation describes the wants or needs that direct behavior toward a goal. When we refer to someone as being motivated, we mean that the person is trying hard to accomplish a certain task; having motivation is clearly important for someone to perform well. Both the achievement and cognitive approaches to motivation examine the various factors that influence our motivation.

Achievement Motivation

According to the achievement approach to motivation, the need for achievement drives accomplishment and performance and thereby motivates our behavior. People may be motivated by different goals related to achievement, and each of these goals affect one's motivation—and thereby behavior—differently. For instance, a student might be motivated to do well in an algebra class because it's interesting and will be useful to her in later courses (i.e., to master the material); to get good grades (i.e., to perform well); or to avoid a poor or failing mark (i.e., to avoid performing poorly). These goals are not mutually exclusive, and may all be present at the same time.

Mastery and Performance Goals

Mastery goals tend to be associated with the satisfaction of mastering something—in other words, gaining control, proficiency, comprehensive knowledge, or sufficient skill in a given area (such as mastering the art of cooking). Mastery goals are a form of intrinsic motivation (arising from internal forces) and have been found to be moreeffective than performance goals at sustaining students' interest in a subject. In one review of research about learning goals, for example, students with primarily mastery orientations toward a course they were taking not only tended to express greater interest in the course, but also continued to express interest well beyond the official end of the course and to enroll in further courses in the same subject (Harackiewicz, et al., 2002; Wolters, 2004).

Performance goals, on the other hand, are extrinsically motivated (arising from external factors) and can have both positive and negative effects. Students with performance goals often tend to get higher grades than those who primarily express mastery goals, and this advantage is often seen both in the short term (with individual assignments) and in the long term (with overall grade point average when graduating). However, there is evidence that performance-oriented students do not actually learn material as deeply or permanently as students who are more mastery-oriented (Midgley, Kaplan, & Middleton, 2001).

A possible reason is that measures of performance, such as test scores, often reward relatively shallow memorization of information; in other words, information that is "crammed" before a test is only remembered in the short-term and often forgotten immediately after the test. Because the "performance" is over, there are no negative consequences for forgetting the information relatively quickly, and this can prevent performance-oriented students from processing the information more thoughtfully or deeply. Another possible reason is that by focusing on gaining recognition as the top performer in a peer group, a performance orientation encourages competition with peers. Giving and receiving help from classmates is thus not in the self-interest of a performance-oriented student, and the resulting isolation can limit the student's learning.

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive approaches to motivation focus on how a person's motivation is influenced by their cognitions or mental processes. Of particular interest is the role of cognitive dissonance on motivation. Cognitive dissonance occurs when a person experiences conflict, contradiction, or inconsistency in their cognitions. These contradictory cognitions may be attitudes, beliefs, or awareness of one's behavior. Dissonance is strongest when a discrepancy has been noticed between one's self-concept and one's behavior. If you do something you are ashamed of or act in a way that is counter to an idea you have about yourself (for example, if you consider yourself an honest person but then lie to your parents when they ask about your future plans), you are likely to feel cognitive dissonance afterward.

The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance in their cognitions by either changing or justifying their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. How a person chooses to respond to the dissonance depends on the strength of various motivating factors. For example, smoking cigarettes increases the risk of cancer, which is threatening to the self-concept of the individual who smokes. When the smoker hears evidence suggesting that smoking might cause cancer (cognitive component), they can either choose to stop smoking (change the behavioral component) or choose to reject the causal link. Since smoking is physically addictive, most smokers choose to minimize their acknowledgement of the risk rather than change their behavior. The addiction is more motivating than the fear of possible long-term medical consequences, so the less-motivating idea is minimized and discounted. Most of us believe ourselves to be intelligent and rational, and the idea of doing something self-destructive causes dissonance. To reduce this uncomfortable tension, smokers might make excuses for themselves, such as "I'm going to die anyway, so it doesn't matter."

Another application of cognitive dissonance occurs in the case of effort justification. Dissonance is aroused whenever individuals voluntarily engage in an unpleasant activity to achieve some desired goal; this dissonance can be reduced by exaggerating the desirability of the goal. The more time, money, or effort someone invests in an activity, the more they will convince themselves that they made a wise choice and that their efforts were worth it. A child who has to work and save for a bicycle, for example, will value it more and take better care of it than if the bicycle was given as a gift, with no effort on the part of the child.

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