Exploring power motivation and the brain
Basal ganglia assists power motivation
The motivational system of the brain works largely by an incentive versus penalty mechanism. When a particular behaviour is followed by positive consequences, the incentive mechanism in the brain is activated, which encourages structural changes inside the brain that cause repetition of that behaviour whenever a comparable state occurs. Equally, when a behaviour is followed by negative consequences, the brain's penalty mechanism is motivated, stimulating structural changes that cause the behaviour to be inhibited when similar situations occur.
This incentive versus penalty system is instigated by an exclusive set of brain structures, including the basil ganglia, which is a set of interrelated areas at the base of the forebrain. There is extensive evidence that the basal ganglia are the central site at which decisions are made. Incentives and penalties work by changing the association between the messages that the basal ganglia receive and the decision-signals that are produced, therefore assisting in the motivational choices we make, be it a positive or a negative one.
The role of hormones in winning
Nelson (n.d) states that research has shown that the neurotransmitter dopamine plays a central role in the reinforcement of the behaviour that follows the positive consequences.
Mehta & Josephs (2010) suggest that human social motivation occurs through naturally occurring testosterone and cortisol, but studies have shown that the hormones oxytocin and progesterone contribute to social motivation also.
Testosterone versus progesterone
Evidence has specified that gonadal steroid hormones are involved in motivational processes that are also involved with dominance, sex drive, and attachment (Schultheiss, Wirth & Stanton, 2004). In males, a need for dominance, or scientifically known as the implicit power motive, has been shown to be associated with testosterone release. The implicit power motive is an unconscious concern for having impact on others or the world at large.
In a study by Schultheiss & Rohde, (2002) they demonstrate how implicit power motivation moderates men’s testosterone responses to winning or losing in a competitive environment. It was found that after winning testosterone increases, negotiating the effect of power motivation on implicit learning. What this means is that implicit power motivation plays a moderating role in testosterone responses to winning. Interestingly, they also found that there was testosterone increases in the participant who had lost in competition, which was inferred also to implicit learning. Furthermore, these increases in testosterone may have some effect on increasing levels of power motivation through the improved implicit learning. Importantly, the findings in this particular study offer some support to the ideal that this post-competition increase in testosterone may be associated with power motivation reward and reinforcement, therefore giving some hopes to individuals that are inhibited. The notion that power motivation can be derived from implicit learning through hormonal changes after competition, regardless of the outcome is certainly an interesting view. However, a realistic understanding of the direct effect of winning and losing a competition on testosterone is unclear.
Comparatively less is known about the role of progesterone in motivational processes. Schultheiss, Wirth & Stanton (2004) explain that high levels of progesterone show known effects of decreased sexual motivation, which also suggests a link between progesterone and affiliation motivation, or a need to have intimate, positive relationships with others and like the power motive, is part of McClelland’s Human Motivation Theory. While we now have some understanding of a correlation between testosterone and power motivation, progesterone and its link to affiliation motivation is questionable in the quest for self-help in power motivation. Unlike those with high power motive, those with affiliation motive want to belong to the group, want to be liked, and will often go along with whatever the rest of the group wants to do. Importantly, they choose collaboration over competition and err on the side of caution and certainty.
Progesterone can be used in another hormonal pathway through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis to self-help and power motivation. Progesterone can be released as a by-product of stress hormones and is potentially involved in the down-regulation of the stress response (Wirth, Welsh, & Schultheiss, 2005). Wirth et al. (2005) examined the possibility that implicit motives are weaknesses to specific stressors. They anticipated that certain events that are generally expected to be stressful are only stressful to the degree that they represent in difficulty. Wirth et al. state the evidence supporting this hypothesis comes from research on the effects of a social defeat on the release of cortisol, a hormonal marker of stress. The hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis responds to both physical and psychological stressors by increasing glucocorticoid release. Only individuals high in implicit power motivation respond to this type of event with rising levels of cortisol, whereas individuals with a weak power motive show virtually no increases of cortisol (Wirth & Schultheiss, 2006). However, these results remain uncertain as to whether progesterone is in any way beneficial in assisting with power motivation.
Power motivation and the 'need' for achievement
McClelland & Burnham (1976) understand those with high power motivation as having a focus on setting goals and reaching them by putting their own achievement and recognition first. Therefore in order to help the self, one must consider their own needs, goals and pursuit of achievement in order to understand and fully utilise their own power motive.
Merrick & Shafi (2011) describe the different types of power as:
- reward power
- coercive power
- legitimate power
- referent power
- expert power and
- informational power
Five factors relating to the fear of power have also been acknowledged:
- fear of the augmentation of one’s power source
- fear of the loss of one’s power source
- fear of exerting power
- fear of the counter-power of others and
- fear of one’s power behaviour failing
Merrick & Shafi believe these self-consciousness predispositions can moderate power by directing it into adequate social behaviour. Power motivation can be measured by incentive and probability of success. McClelland and Watson (1973) indicate that gratification of the power motive depends merely on incentive and is not motivated by the likelihood of success. Power motivated individuals select high-incentive goals, as achieving these goals gives them major control, and satisfaction in the need for achievement.
Goal selection complements power motivation
Merrick & Shafi (2011) demonstrate power motivation with regard to incentive as the inclination to seek power and inhibition of power. Tendency to seek power is lowest for low-incentive goals and highest for high-incentive goals. If we relate this to the matter of competition and winning, those who initially take the incentive to strive for high-incentive goals, also acquire the highest power. Perhaps then, those who have met and succeeded in their goal selection have a high power motive than those who have not.
Reeve (2009) explains that goals are set and achieved more easily by those who have a high desire for power as opposed to those who have a low desire. He states further that with a high need for power, there is also an increase in the tendency to approach rather than to inhibit, affirming that high power motivation and action tend to go hand in hand.
McClelland & Burnham (1976) observed that many of those who reach the top of professional organisations and are ranked as extremely successful in their roles and motivating others are also of concern to them. McClelland (1987) expresses these qualities as the true need for power. Furthermore power motivation is not about one with dictatorial, overbearing behaviour, rather one with a need to have some influence, to be significant and efficient in achieving goals. In other words, a person who is motivated from something internal to them, or intrinsically motivated may find the initial power motive to win. However just as motives do, goals also direct behaviour and unlike implicit motivation, goals predict behaviour when the individual cognitively decides on a course of action. This action can be motivated from either explicit or implicit power motivation. Regardless, if we consider power motivation and it’s relevance to a need for achievement, it must truly come from within as an implicit power motive.
Socialised versus personalised power motivation: who wins?
If we consider the "self-help" motive behind this book chapter, then it must be said that importantly here, personalised power motivation may perhaps be of greater use in conquering ones aspirations of winning. Only those who have the need for social recognition can truly be successful through socialised power motivation, however in using personalised power motivation each and every individual can benefit. So how do we distinguish the two, and use them to our benefit?
Socialised power motivation
An individual with socialised power motive uses power as a means to achieve their goals. This motivation is more likely to achieve success. Those with socialised power motives are:
- Emotionally more mature
- Organise power for the benefit of a group rather than self
- Are less likely to use power to manipulate
- Are less defensive
- Are willing to take on advice from others
- Have a long-term perspective
Personalised power motivation
Locke (1999) describes the individual with a high personalised power motivation as one that uses it as a means to an end or ultimate personal goal. Those with personalised power motives are:
- Often impulsive
- Lack self-control
- Sets goals that relate to possessions or prestige
- Sometimes display aggressive or risk-taking behaviour
- Have a focus on dominating others or being on top
- See their own power motive as being influential to others
Magee & Langner (2008) state that one can desire to have influence over others either for self-serving or other-serving reasons. They explain the personalised or self-serving power motivation is positively related to achievement of prestigious possessions, such as winning a trophy or medal. Socialised or other-serving motivation on the other hand, is positively related to valuing the self as a dependable individual.
Which power motivated competitor are you? Socialised or personalised?
Consider a competitor who is high in socialised power motivation but low in personalised power motivation, and continues his career as a football player for the improvement of his team.
Another competitor however, is high in personalised power motivation and but not in socialised power motivation. This individual plays his or her in order achieve recognition and to drive others to assist him in reaching his own goals (Magee & Langner, 2008).
On evaluating the two scenarios, both power motives affect decision-making processes and choices in different types of goals and situations and having a greater understanding of the two can assist in finding the path to success and winning.
Costs and benefits of power motivation
A benefit of power motivation in competition (close view)
To look deep within power motivation and find its cost and benefits, or 'pros and cons', this analysis may be the key to finding the self-help required to generate or increase power motivation to assist in competition and winning. Understanding the 'whys' and 'why nots' can be a positive teaching tool. There are both positive and negative aspects in regards to the need for power. Veroff & Veroff (1972) state that the costs of high power motivation occur in status groups that are concerned about their weakness, indicating a false sense of power within the self. Furthermore they believe it can lead to the averting of the power state, including self-destruction. Power motivation can also prompt conflict if it is the only motivational theme in a person's life style.
In their study Veroff & Veroff (1972) were able to measure a very significant fear of weakness, one that seems to be initiated by an interruption in status or approach to goal setting. They believe this hesitation can lead to avoidant responses in some circumstances, along with costs in personal regulation on other occasions.
Those who have high power motivation are driven to gain power and glory, and work aggressively to be admired rather than loved (McClelland & Watson, 1973). This can work positively when aiming to success in meeting goals.
Rosenthal & Pittinsky (2006) explain the success of leaders with high power motivation; they affirm that their goals are ambitious and because they are motivated by a personal need for power, glory, and a legacy, they will acquire loyal supporters. In turn, these supporters fulfill the leaders' need for admiration, which further enhances their confidence and belief in their in their own goals, making them more successful with future aspirations. Rosenthal & Pittinsky state that for U.S. presidents, higher power motivation is related to charm, combative skill and aggressiveness; all traits that are considered relative to highly power motivated individuals.
McClelland & Burnham, (1976) affirm that individuals high in power motivation are generally more concerned with influencing others than with being liked by others. However, they derive satisfaction from achieving their goals. Leaders or winners high in power motivation are not concerned with being liked; rather they are concerned with having a positive impact on others. Winners driven by power motivation are not primarily concerned with self-glory, because their self-image is not dependent on their performance (McClelland & Burnham, 1976) or their ability to dominate those around them (Rosenthal & Pittinsky). Perhaps the greatest benefit of power motivation is the maturity and security that emanates from it, keeping ones selfishness and personal growth in order (McClelland & Burnham).
Pros of power motivation in competition
- High level of self-confidence
- Derive satisfaction from goal achievement
- Offers maturity and security
- Nurtures personal growth
Cons of power motivation in competition
- A false sense of power within the self
- Can lead to self-destruction
- Can lead to avoidant responses
- Trouble regulating the self
Power motivation techniques: how to get yourself 'over the line first'
Having gained a better understanding of the theory and concept of power motivation, it is time to look at the self and recognise where your own power motives originate and learn how to embrace them for your own personal gain.
Let’s look at a self-help exercise to understand your own power motivation:
Find your power motivation
What motivates you to get over the line first?
- Take a piece of paper, and write down five reasons why you want to succeed in your chosen challenge.
- Look at those five reasons, or motivators, separately.
- On a scale of one to ten, how strong is reason one as your motivator?
- Ask yourself; “Where does reason one come from?” Is it your innate desire for self-actualisation, or is it driven by something to do with another person or entity? What impact will failure have on this reason? What impact will success have on this reason? Will the impact be transient, or permanent?
- Use this same process for each of your motivators.
- Now reorganise your reasons in order of priority.
It is among these reasons that you will discover your power motive and find the drive to work towards your goal. You will then be able to discern whether your desire for success is internally or externally driven. And whether it will lead to the kind of happiness you want. Sometimes, a transient happiness is all that is wanted, as a stepping-stone to other, more permanent states. Whether the happiness is derived from an external or an internal source, understanding your own power motive will assist you in achieving your own goals and in getting you ‘over the line first’!
Our own inherent desire for competition and personal need for achievement is through our self-serving power motivation. If power is truly self-serving, the motivation to win or to be successful may be come from the inner teachings of personalised power motivation and embracing the power of self-serving goal setting. This supports McClelland’s (2003) ideal that being the best may come from within those who truly enjoy the power. Notably also, power motivation can be induced socially by peers, coaches, and competitors, which is an important factor when setting goals. The need for achievement can be guided and assisted by using the “why you want to succeed’ techniques demonstrated in this chapter.
||The outstanding people realised that the job involved more than just writing a good strategic plan. It was also important that top management should understand the plan and be prepared to adopt it.
-David C. McClelland, (1976)
Having an understanding of the origins of your own power motivation and an awareness of both the self and other-selves power motives and their pros and cons is important, however adopting the knowledge of power motivation and applying it to the self may enlighten you on a positive path to success.
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